Recent student deaths renew calls for change for victims' families

Greek life is a beloved and celebrated student activity on college campuses throughout the country. But recent tragedies at Penn State and LSU highlight serious issues that universities in Texas are not immune to.

“I tell people all the time that lose their child that they're in a club that nobody else wants to be a member of,” said Mark Warren, sitting inside an office at the Community Foundation of West Texas in Lubbock.

It’s a club that he knows all too well.

A club that now includes the families of Penn State sophomore Timothy Piazza and Louisiana State freshman Max Gruver.

“The nurse brought me forward and told me to kiss him goodbye,” said Evelyn Piazza, Timothy’s mother.

"We will never know what he might have contributed to the world,” Eugene Gruver said, Max’s grandfather.

Piazza and Gruver are two of the most recent deaths to hit college campuses. Both cases involved excessive drinking.

In the case of Piazza, prosecutors claim fraternity brothers in Beta Theta Pi waited 12 hours after he passed out before calling 9-1-1.  By then – it was too late. Now, several fraternity members face criminal charges.

Authorities in Louisiana are still investigating Gruver’s death.

“Hazing is dangerous, irresponsible and unacceptable. And it will not be tolerated at LSU. Period,” explained LSU President F. King Alexander.

Gruver, a Phi Delta Theta pledge had a high level of alcohol and THC in his system when he died.

In response, all fraternity and sorority life at LSU was suspended, though some of the restrictions have been partially lifted.

“The others that are involved in these types of activities – their lives go on. But the families’ lives does not,” Warren explained.

It’s been 15 years since Warren’s son Clay, a freshman at Texas Tech, died in a car accident following a fraternity-sponsored retreat.

In a lawsuit, the Warren family claimed that actions during the retreat led to the crash that killed their son.

Due to an out-of-court settlement, Warren could not go into further detail, but he’s trying to make a difference.

In his memory - the Clay R. Warren Memorial Risk Management Retreat at Texas Tech was established – mandating leaders in student organizations attend speaker and training sessions. To read more on the Clay R. Warren Risk Education Policy at Texas Tech, click here.

“Not to not have fun, not to not have social events – but when you have those social events, think about them… don't plan them 10 minutes before you have them,” Warren said.

In 2007, Warren had a chance meeting while stuck at an airport with then-state Senator Robert Duncan.

What began as a discussion ended up on the floor of the Capitol, where lawmakers passed legislation making risk management training required for leaders of all student organizations statewide.

Warren was in a fraternity when he was in school, and made clear his message was about protecting – not punishing – those who participate.

“(Fraternities and sororities) can do 999 things that are wonderful for communities, for states, for nations. But they can do one thing bad, and it’s all over the place,” Warren explained.

Duncan is now the Chancellor of the Texas Tech University System.

It’s the type of tangible change that many victims families’ want to see.

“We didn’t want any other families to have to go through what we went through,” Warren said.

Families like Jack Phoummarath’s.

In 2005, Phoummarath was a freshman at U-T who had just been initiated into the Lambda Phi Epsilon fraternity. After a night of what witnesses described as excessive drinking, Phoummarath passed out. Members of the fraternity pulled him into a room to sleep it off.

"I went over to Jack, and I asked him if he wanted to go home and shower up, and I just heard him moaning, and I said 'all right man, I'll just come back later,'” said a pledge brother in a taped deposition.

Hours passed – instead of getting help, some at the party drew on his face with a marker.

Finally, the following afternoon, they realized something was seriously wrong. By the time authorities were called, Jack Phoummarath was dead.

Three students faced hazing charges in his death – and the family reached a multi-million dollar settlement with the fraternity.  The money went towards the creation of a film highlighting the dangers of hazing and excessive drinking, called “Enough is Enough,” as well as a scholarship in his name.  The video in its entirety can be viewed here.

The Phanta “Jack” Phoummarath Endowed Scholarship has been established for “a UT student entering their sophomore year at the University of Texas at Austin who will promote alcohol awareness on campus to educate other students on the dangers of hazing and alcohol abuse.” To learn more about the scholarship, click here.

The students pled no contest – and were sentenced to community service and a fine.  

“As bad as legal consequences are, losing a friend is so much worse,” said Andrew Nguyen, the Pledge Captain.

“We have zero-tolerance for hazing as well (as the state law). When we become aware of an allegation, we do conduct investigations,” explained Doug Garrard, the Senior Associate Dean of Students at U-T.

Over the past three years, 13 student organizations, including 11 fraternities, have violated hazing policies.

“I think when individuals think about hazing, fraternities and sororities come to mind.  But that’s not always the case.  There are other organizations on our campus that do haze young members. And if we find out about it, we will investigate just as if it were a sorority or fraternity,” said Garrard.

“This is not just a (fraternity and sorority) problem. They’re always the ones that get the headlines,” Warren explained.

According to the Texas Education Code, those groups in violation of the established policies are released in a memo.

The list can be viewed here.

The university conducts 30-40 investigations each year. 

“We have a moral obligation to investigate to make sure there’s no hazing going on for the safety of all of our students involved in these organizations,” said Garrard.

Each time the university opens a hazing investigation, they inform the District Attorney.

“Most of our organizations, including (sorority and fraternities), are considered “registered student organizations,” and they’re private entities. So they’re not considered part of the university structure. But our office, specifically our Sorority and Fraternity Life Office, works with our (sorority and fraternity) organizations in a coaching, advising (role).  We offer a lot of leadership training. We offer an educational class to our sorority and fraternity community.  And we also do some risk management training,” explained Garrard.

By registering, organizations are allowed to exist and act on campus. In total, there are about 1,300 student organizations operating at UT.

School officials work alongside with the Texas Interfraternity Council. The IFC does have disciplinary powers.

In a statement to KVUE, the IFC writes:

Fraternities are about brotherhood and helping students find a niche group within a larger campus community. They exist to encourage academic success and service to the community.

Hazing has no place in any setting, including fraternities. It can only erode the very foundation of fraternities.

Hazing is a topic we take seriously. Texas IFC holds regular workshops with fraternity members to combat hazing and ensure the safety of our members.

Garrard estimated about 16 percent of UT’s student body is part of fraternity or sorority life – which equals approximately 8,000 students.

“We have a new member orientation with our sorority and fraternity inductees.  We cover hazing among other safety-related topics,” Garrard explained.

The university is not actively involved in monitoring off-campus activities, though they have participated in follow-up.

While proving allegations can be difficult, even the initial reporting of them is rare.

A 2008-multi-campus study by two University of Maine professors found that in 95% percent of cases in which a student identified their experience as hazing, they did *not* report it to campus officials.

State law in Texas provides immunity to those who come forward – so students will be more forthcoming.

As coverage of both Piazza and Gruver’s deaths continues, advocates concerns’ reach a new generation of students.  

“I'm hopeful that this movement that I see happening right now will help with that accountability,” said Warren.

“Tim…. Is not just our son anymore.  He represents every son and daughter of every family that has someone that they want to send to college that may want to participate in a (fraternity or sorority),” said James Piazza, Tim Piazza’s father.

It’s hope for a generation where this types of tragedies will become a think of the past.

“I think education is the key and accountability,” Warren said.

Hazing is typically a Class B misdemeanor in Texas, though students can face more serious charges depending on the severity of the case.

Fifteen years after his son’s death, Warren said he feels sorry for the driver of the vehicle in which his son died.

“I don’t believe that any of these young men or young women in these organizations are bad kids. I believe that they get into situations that turn out bad,” Warren said.

 

© 2017 KVUE-TV


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