Imagine you’re an average college student at a fraternity party. It’s cold — February in central Pennsylvania always is.
Suddenly, someone falls down the stairs. They’re drunk enough that they don’t wake up when they hit the floor of the basement. Through the rest of the night, you see his fraternity brothers trying to wake him up by pouring water on him, punching him in the stomach and slapping him in the face.
Ultimately it’s up to you whether you call an ambulance or not. It’s not illegal if you don’t. But if you were involved in creating the circumstances that led to his death — obtaining the alcohol, injuring him when trying to wake him or failing to call an ambulance, should you be held responsible?
The jury’s out, but the judge in Timothy Piazza’s case isn’t. Piazza, a 19-year-old student at Penn State University and pledge of Beta Theta Pi, died after a party at the fraternity house in February. Some of his fraternity brothers — 18 men in total — received charges related to the night of Piazza’s death.
Magisterial District Judge Allen W. Sinclair acquitted four of the defendants, each of whom faced only single charges not including manslaughter. For the remaining 14, the judge dropped all charges of involuntary manslaughter, aggravated assault and simple assault. Now, they only face misdemeanors.
Like them, most of us consider ourselves adults. We’re in college, and learning to do many of the things adults do — from laundry to making responsible decisions. But in order to make responsible decisions, we must accept the consequences of our actions.
When we’re children, we’re protected from these consequences. Our parents try to take responsibility for us and ensure that we don’t make terrible mistakes. But as college students, the potential consequences of our actions are more severe — and when we’re adults, there’s nobody to blame other than ourselves.
Through negotiating our way out of fines and penalties, we return the autonomy adulthood grants us and reject the responsibilities entrusted to us.
This may not have been what Sinclair meant by his decision. Since he wouldn’t say why he dropped the most serious of charges, which could have resulted in 10 to 20 years of jail time, there’s no way to know for sure. But Centre County District Attorney Stacey Miller, the prosecutor in the case, thinks she knows why.
Miller believes the judge assessed each member individually rather than judging them based on their collective action. In short, the judge found nobody alone was responsible for killing Piazza.
This can’t be true, at least not for all of the defendants. Without any of the fraternity brothers’ contributions, Piazza might’ve lived — he could have consumed less alcohol, not fallen down the stairs or received prompter medical care.
But Theodore Simon, a defense lawyer for the case, argues that the judge made a fair decision. He believes that not all tragedies like this require such severe legal and criminal repercussions.
The Piazza case shouldn’t just be remembered as a tragedy — it should serve as a lesson. Unfortunately, the decision doesn’t reflect what it should have portrayed — that when you ask to be responsible, you are also asking to be held accountable. But instead, the decision implicitly states that as college students, you can reject accountability for even the most severe of your actions.
Now they’re being tried on charges of hazing, providing alcohol to a minor and reckless endangerment — which alone could lead to a maximum of two years in prison, assuming they get any time at all. If students are acquitted of charges as severe as involuntary manslaughter, the standards for accountability are unclear.
But this is a message that must be clear. Responsibility and accountability go hand in hand — we cannot accept one and not the other. Since we are here, in college, we are accepting the responsibility of living without our parent or guardian, and we, therefore, have agreed to accept the outcome of our decisions — good or bad.
If you want to be treated like an adult, then you must take liability for the outcomes of any decision you make. You can’t be half of an adult, so don’t act like being in college overrides the responsibility you agreed to take on.