Penn State Fraternity Gets a Small Win But Trouble Not Over


Several members of a Penn State University fraternity have been in hot water in recent months, the subjects of an investigation into the alcohol-related hazing death of a pledge. Now, though, there is a bit of breathing room for the 12 accused college students. A judge tossed out the involuntary manslaughter and aggravated assault charges.

The frat bros are not out of the woods yet, though. The judge said the young men will still stand trial on a series of lesser charges. Michael Engle, the defense attorney for one of the accused, put it this way: “Obviously now the teeth have really been taken out of the commonwealth’s case…”

But the state still has a case. There are several facts that everyone seems to agree on. Tim Piazza, a 19-year-old student and fraternity pledge, died after drinking vodka and beer at a frat-led hazing event. But, apparently, it wasn’t the alcohol that killed him. It was the fall down the frat house stairs. After the fall, members of the fraternity failed to report the incident until the following morning. Piazza later died of injuries including a damaged spleen and fractured skull.

Based on this story, defense attorneys have cast the case as a tragic accident. The frat brothers didn’t know how injured Piazza was, and they called as soon as they realized … at least that’s the story being promoted by the defense.

Had the young men been found guilty of the aggravated assault charge, at least eight of them would likely have been given stiff prison sentences. That, apparently, is off the table. Instead, the fraternity members will likely be charged with reckless endangerment, unlawful hazing and, potentially, violating liquor laws.

But this judge’s decision doesn’t mean the prosecution is giving up. DA Stacy Parks Miller told the press she plans to refile the involuntary manslaughter charges if allowed by a judge.

Regardless of the success or failure of that appeal, these frat brothers, and, by extension, Penn State, face a serious PR crisis.

There is no way this situation gets reported without someone in the media pointing back to Penn State’s most recent PR nightmare, the abuse scandal that nearly brought down the storied football program, and did succeed in ending the career of perennial Penn State coaching legend, Joe Paterno. While the two cases have absolutely nothing to do with each other, the name of the university is still connected to the scandal in many people’s minds.

Penn State has worked hard to separate the school and its football brand from that PR scandal. They had, largely, been successful. Now the leadership of the school faces yet another PR challenge. The public will demand that someone answer for the death of this student. Who it will be is yet to be decided.

Ronn Torossian

Ronn Torossian is the founder and CEO of 5WPR and one of the most well-respected Public Relations professionals in the United States. Ronn is the author of "For Immediate Release: Shape Minds, Build Brands, and Deliver Results with Game-Changing Public Relations."

View more posts from this author