Lawyers for Penn State University fraternity members who face charges in connection with the death of a 19-year-old pledge from New Jersey are trying to get some of the charges dismissed before a trial takes place
A preliminary hearing in the case against 18 young men who were part of the now-closed Beta Theta Pi frat house took place on Tuesday, and two additional sessions are planned for August.
They face a variety of charges relating to the February death of 19-year-old Tim Piazza of Readington, including aggravated assault, hazing, reckless endangerment, furnishing alcohol to minors, and tampering with evidence.
Piazza died after falling down a flight of basement steps in the Beta Theta Pi frat house after a night of heavy drinking, according to authorities.
Bob Ottilie, the founder and chairman of the Student Justice Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for students, believes there are other parties responsible for the tragedy.
“One would be the landlord of the house, in which the drinking took place. Two would be the national fraternity, the Beta fraternity. And the third would be the university,” he said.
He stressed it’s easy to look at this situation and say his fraternity brothers could have done something for him, “but the landlord, the national fraternity, and the university could have done something proactively to prevent that type of event from taking place in the first instance.”
Ottilie added, “It’s not fair to suggest that a group of 18 to 22-year-old boys, most of whom are probably intoxicated, were ultimately going to be responsible for Tim Piazza. The people that should have been responsible for him were the adults in the situation.”
He said this issue needs to be addressed because several hundred young adults attending college die each year, whether it’s alcohol poisoning, an injury resulting from being intoxicated, or a drunk-driving motor vehicle accident.”
Ottilie believes the problem is becoming more pronounced because colleges, for the past 10 to 15 years, have been experiencing “an epidemic of alcohol over-consumption.”
He stressed the responsibility for this lies partially with parents, who allow their high school students to drink alcohol in their homes, and the permissiveness of universities.
He said schools will include alcohol awareness courses for freshmen, but they will also let students consume alcohol in dorms, sometimes in common areas, which encourages a party atmosphere and an over-consumption of alcoholic beverages.
“You can dramatically decrease consumption of alcohol just by eliminating alcohol in the common areas of student residences,” said Ottilie.
Instead of renting an entire house to college kids, he says landlords should only rent them rooms so they can monitor and keep control of common areas of the residence, even if it means hiring security guards.
“You don’t see a lot of people dying from alcohol poisoning after being at a bar. They might die in a car accident going home, but with Uber and Lyft that problem has been minimized. But you do see a lot of deaths in student residences, and that’s because nobody is monitoring these kids,” he said.
He noted research shows the brains of young people, particularly males, aren’t fully formed until they’re about 27 years old, which affects judgment and common sense.
“Even very smart guys make very bad judgments about alcohol,” he said.
“You cannot allow students to have 100 percent control of risk assessment or risk management. You always have to be involved with them.”
In the wake of the Tim Piazza tragedy he suggested parties in all fraternities be phased out completely and moved to licensed establishments, so there would be some control over how much alcohol is consumed, and better protections against underage drinking.