Grieving parents tell the stories of children lost to hazing
For Rae Ann Gruver and Evelyn Piazza, Mother's Day has never been the same since 2017. Because that's the year they lost their sons, Timothy Piazza and Max Gruver. Both were away at college – Timothy at Penn State, Max at Louisiana State. Both had pledged fraternities, and both were hazed.
What happened to their sons often becomes a topic of conversation on college campuses, like at the University of Pittsburgh last year, where Evelyn and Rae Ann told their stories to a room filled with kids who would have been their sons' peers.
"This is our last family picture taken together at the Rose Bowl, January 2nd in 2017," said Evelyn. Rae Ann also showed attendees the last picture she has of herself with her son.
"What happened at that fraternity house?" Evelyn asked.
She recalled to correspondent Lee Cowan, "When the nurse told me to kiss my baby goodbye, and you're just looking at your son laying there, thinking I can't believe this is it. This isn't right. Not like this. It's just not right."
Timothy's Beta Theta Pi brothers had forced him to drink until he was falling down drunk – the last time, it's believed, down a flight of stairs, suffering a traumatic brain injury. No one called 911 for nearly 12 hours.
At the end of Max's night at Phi Delta Theta, his lips had turned blue, and with six times the legal limit of alcohol in his system, his brothers left him to sleep it off on a couch. He never woke up.
Rae Ann said, "Just knowing someone could be that mean to someone else, and be that mean to your child, and that's how your child died, was with somebody treating him so horribly, and for what? To join a fraternity?"
Talking about their pain has become almost a full-time job – for their husbands, too. Jim Piazza and Steve Gruver join them in speaking to students.
"In less than 90 minutes, Tim had the equivalent of 18 drinks," said Jim during one presentation, "and then they let him lie there, as he was slowly dying, right in front of their eyes."
Rae Ann said, "Max was forced to consume 18 to 20 pulls off of those bottles, which has been calculated to be at least 32 ounces of diesel, of grain alcohol."
She told Cowan, of students who hear their stories, "They just can feel it. They can relate to two mothers up their telling these stories, 'cause they think about their moms."
As many as 150,000 students have heard their message so far, many brought to tears by it, like at a Greek Leadership Conference in Indianapolis last year.
Steve Gruver told Cowan, "We just feel like we're the puppets at the end of the strings. And those boys are just up there guiding us and showing us the path."
"It's really tough to hear, which I guess is really the point?" asked Cowan.
"When you're talking about hazing, it just should not be sugarcoated or lightly talked about," Rae Ann said.
"That said, you don't preach though; you really just tell your stories."
"If we can get them to feel it, I think they'll do something," Jim replied.
Hank Nuwer, professor emeritus at Franklin College in Indiana, has written five books on the subject of hazing. His research uncovered at least one hazing-related death every single year since 1959, and some years there were many more.
Cowan asked Nuwer, "Why is it such an intractable problem?"
"To put it succinctly, for many groups pledging equals hazing, hazing equals pledging," Nuwer replied. "It tarnishes the Greek system, tarnishes our universities, and is totally preventable."
2020 passed with some close calls, but no hazing fatalities – a pleasant surprise for such a dark year.
But unfortunately, the same can't be said for 2021. So far, two deaths are being investigated as the result of hazing: Stone Foltz, a sophomore at Ohio's Bowling Green State University; and Adam Oakes, a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University.
Nuwer said, "Usually when a death occurs, there's circling of the wagons. You often find that lawyers and parents are phoned before 911. I could point to quite a few deaths that didn't have to happen if somebody had only made the call."
"If they're weren't worried about getting in trouble themselves?" asked Cowan.
"If they weren't trying to cover their butts."
Around 700,000 undergraduates call themselves members of a fraternity or a sorority, but it's fraternities where hazing is most acute.
According to a 2008 University of Maine study, 73% of fraternity and sorority members reported being hazed – and the Piazzas and Gruvers know real change had to come from within the Greek system itself.
Judson Horras, the president and CEO of the North American Interfraternity Conference, a national governing association which represents 58 fraternities, recalled his meeting with parents: "I just started with, I was sorry. And I think I said it 20 times," he told Cowan. "We have the same common enemy. It's hazing"
To combat the enemy, grieving parents – along with leaders of national fraternities and sororities – are now coming together in an unlikely alliance: The Anti-Hazing Coalition.
"You know, the parents bring such a level of moral authority to the issue," said Horras. "But they can also get legislatures to do things, college universities, national organizations. They're inviting people to be a part of the solution."
One of their aims is to change both state and federal laws to make hazing just as illegal, and just as unacceptable, as drunk driving, much the way Mothers Against Drug Driving did back in the '80s and '90s.
"It took MADD a decade," Horras said. "So, this is going to take a while."
Currently, 44 states have passed laws prohibiting hazing, but most treat it only as a misdemeanor. But that's changing. Just recently, in the alcohol-related death pf Stone Foltz, that pledge at Bowling Green State University, eight students were charged, and many with felonies.
The End All Hazing Act was also re-introduced in the Senate this past March. It would mandate colleges and universities disclose any hazing incidents to both parents and potential pledges alike.
Evelyn Piazza said, "This way a parent or a student can use that as a tool for good decision-making. And then you can say, 'Oh, Beta Theta Pi was suspended four years ago for hazing, for a year. Maybe we shouldn't consider that one."
Inside the Greek system, they say they've seen some change as well. Jim Piazza said, "You see so many chapters – fraternities mostly, but sororities as well – that are being shut down for periods of time now because people are reporting, because the Universities are saying, 'We can't have that.'"
Steve Gruver said, "I always ask folks, you know, 'Who in here is for hazing?' You know, not a hand goes up. The hazers are cowards, they're not going to raise their hands. But the point is, they're in the minority. Let that empower you to stand up and make a change."
The Gruvers and the Piazzas are still keeping the pressure on, talking about their boys in any way they can, until the idea of hazing is seen as a sign of weakness instead of some twisted proof of loyalty.
Rae Ann Gruver told Cowan, "We'll say these stories as many times as we have to, if it's changing the culture."
According to Evelyn Piazza, "You're releasing some of that pain when you talk. And hopefully we're effective, and people are listening. So, it's worth it."
For more info:
- Anti-Hazing Coalition
- Hazing Prevention
- "Hazing: Destroying Young Lives," edited by Hank Nuwer (Indiana University Press), in Hardcover, Trade Paperback and eBook formats, available via Amazon and Indiebound
- North American Interfraternity Conference
- Max Gruver Foundation
- Tim J. Piazza Memorial Foundation
Story produced by Deirdre Cohen. Editor: Ed Givnish.
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