Evelyn Piazza walked the halls of a congressional office building in Washington on Tuesday with multicolored bands sliding up and down her wrists, collected from friends whose children died as a result of hazing rituals in college.
One was for her own son. It was marble blue and read "Live like Tim, never stop laughing."
She and her husband, Jim, were among the families who gathered in the Capitol that day to lobby lawmakers to sponsor and pass the End All Hazing Act. The bill, an amendment to the Higher Education Act introduced in the U.S. House of Representatives in June, would force universities to publicly share which student organizations had engaged in and been found responsible for hazing.
In the families' view, such a step is common sense and simple to achieve. University officials already maintain records of university conduct violations, so it would be a matter of creating a webpage to post them publicly, as the bill requires.
But policy changes cracking down on hazing by creating harsh penalties and making it easier to prosecute have historically been sluggish, and they likely will continue to be. The death of the Piazzas' son at Pennsylvania State University in 2017 helped turn a national eye to these issues and led to a rewrite of Pennsylvania law to make hazing a felony charge if it resulted in serious injury or death.
Tim, a 19-year-old Beta Theta Pi pledge, fell 15 feet down a flight of steps after a night of heavy drinking in early February 2017. Surveillance footage from the fraternity's house showed the members ignored Tim's need for medical care and instead hit him and splashed liquid on his face. Tim fell several more times during the night, striking his head on a hardwood floor and an iron railing. He bled internally for hours before he died two days later.
"It's not boys will be boys," Evelyn Piazza said in an interview with Education Dive. "It's dangerous. A lot of times it starts out small, but it always ramps up to the next level, and the next level. Nobody ever starts out the day thinking they're going to kill somebody."
Focusing on transparency
Fatal hazing incidents have been documented for decades, but only in recent years have deaths spurred criticism of how college officials handle such matters and scrutiny of the criminal statutes associated with hazing. The public's tolerance for hazing has waned, especially when the details of a brutal death such as Tim's surface. It no longer behooves universities politically to disregard these issues as they once did, said Gentry McCreary, chief executive officer of Dyad Strategies, which consults with institutions on Greek life.
Pennsylvania's law passed easily through the legislative process in 2018. And Florida enacted one of the most intricate anti-hazing laws in the country this year, which in part protects good Samaritans from criminal charges if they report potentially deadly hazing to the police or other officials.
The federal bill, sponsored chiefly by Rep. Marcia Fudge, an Ohio Democrat, does not go so far because new criminal punishments and amnesty measures — such as the one included in Florida's law — would not be palatable, advocates say.
The bill instead focuses on transparency. In addition to the online database of hazing infractions each college would maintain, administrators would have to distribute a written notice to students about where they could access the website. It has gained at least 16 co-sponsors in the House, and Sen. Bill Cassidy, a Louisiana Republican, will sign on as lead sponsor in the Senate, according to his office.
Activists sought Sen. Bob Casey, a Pennsylvania Democrat, as the Democratic sponsor, but it is unclear whether he will support the bill. A representative for Casey did not respond to a request for comment sent Wednesday.
Cassidy and Casey jointly announced Friday they would introduce the senate version of the bill.
"This is a nonpartisan issue," said Rich Braham, whose 18-year-old son, Marquise, ended his life in 2014 after being hazed. "There shouldn't be extreme divisions here. Student safety doesn't have political leanings."
Gridlock in Congress likely would prevent a bill from passing in the immediate future, McCreary said. Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the massive law that governs U.S. higher education, has been a contentious battle and has often stalled. And lawmakers are preoccupied with other political issues, said McCreary, adding that he has advocated for a public disclosure law for years.
"Sunshine is the best disinfectant," he said.
'A 50-state strategy'
Seven parents were on the Hill on Tuesday. They have been backed by the North American Interfraternity Conference and the National Panhellenic Conference, the national associations representing fraternities and sororities, respectively. These groups, along with the parents and others, formed the Anti-Hazing Coalition last year.
The partnership started after Jim Piazza contacted the Jud Horras, chief executive of the Interfraternity Conference, and met with him in March 2018. Horras told Education Dive that "they were feeling each other out" but left the meeting knowing they could work together.
Arnold & Porter, the conference's lobbyist and a prominent influence on the Hill, agreed to work with the parents pro bono, Horras said. The Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee, which is also part of the coalition, will consider which lawmakers support anti-hazing measures when donating for their campaigns, Horras said.
The PAC gave $10,000 to Fudge in each of the 2018 and 2020 election cycles, according to The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying efforts on the Hill. It contributed only $1,000 to Cassidy for the 2018 cycle, but it has already given him $3,500 for 2020.
The coalition intends to pursue state-level legislation and has developed a model bill that would strengthen criminal penalties. In most states, hazing is merely a misdemeanor charge.
The model bill also calls for states to develop a jurisdiction-wide educational plan for preventing hazing. Under the legislation, each state Department of Education would also establish an anti-hazing fund that would collect the fines incurred from disciplinary action to be used for grants.
"The problem is it's a 50-state strategy," Horras said. "So it's going to move slower."
This story has been updated to include information about the Senate version of the End All Hazing bill.