Senate OKs anti-hazing bill drafted after Penn State death

HARRISBURG (AP) — Criminal penalties for hazing would become more severe under a bill — approved Wednesday by the Pennsylvania Senate — that was inspired by the death last year of a Penn State pledge after a night of heavy drinking.

Senators voted unanimously to send the House a proposal that would make the most severe hazing a felony and permit confiscation of frat houses where hazing has occurred.

The bill also would impose new reporting requirements by schools of all violations of anti-hazing laws.

Sophomore engineering student Tim Piazza of Lebanon, New Jersey, suffered a series of falls at the Beta Theta Pi house the night of Feb. 2, 2017, and subsequently died of severe head and abdominal injuries. The bill is titled the Timothy J. Piazza Antihazing Law.

It defines hazing as conditioning acceptance into a group on breaking the law; consuming food, booze or drugs that put someone in emotional or physical harm; having them endure “brutality” that includes whipping, beating, branding, calisthenics or exposure to severe weather; or putting people through sleep deprivation, “exclusion from social conduct” or extreme embarrassment.

The prime sponsor, Majority Leader Jake Corman, a Republican who represents the Penn State area, said the changes are designed to give prosecutors more flexibility in addressing instances of hazing.

It would create tiers for hazing, making it a summary offense unless someone is hurt or dies. Hazing that injures someone would be a misdemeanor carrying up to a year in jail and a $2,500 fine, while an incident that results in severe injury or death would be a felony with a potential sentence of up to seven years and a $15,000 fine.

The bill also would, for the first time, establish the crimes of organizational and institutional hazing. Fraternities and sororities would also be exposed to possible felony charges, and courts could order their properties confiscated. Schools would be subject to institutional hazing, which would be punishable by fines up to $15,000.

Corman’s office said that over the past decade in Pennsylvania, there apparently have not been any convictions under the existing third-degree misdemeanor anti-hazing statute that have produced more serious consequences than probation. Defendants in hazing cases have, however, faced more substantial penalties by being charged with other offenses, such as reckless endangerment or alcohol violations.

Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf said he will sign the legislation if it’s passed by the House.

Dozens of fraternity brothers face charges related to Piazza’s death, in some instances including hazing. Their cases are pending and a hearing is scheduled for early next month.

Piazza’s parents, who have been outspoken about the need to combat hazing, described the bill in a statement as a national model.

“Credit the family for having the courage to take this up so that other parents won’t have to go through what they had to go through,” Corman said in floor remarks.

The proposal also requires colleges, universities and high schools to adopt and post written anti-hazing policies, and to enforce it through such measures as imposing fines, withholding diplomas or transcripts and revoking recognition of social groups.

The bill includes a “safe harbor” provision that would insulate people from prosecution if they sought help for someone involved in a hazing incident. In Piazza’s case, fraternity members did not call for help the night he was injured after a bid acceptance ceremony. They waited 40 minutes after finding him unconscious the next morning before summoning an ambulance.