TRENTON – Spurred by the 2017 death of a 19-year-old Readington student after an initiation at a Penn State University fraternity, the New Jersey Senate has passed a bill that would increase the criminal penalties for hazing.
The bill, co-sponsored by state Sens. Kip Bateman (R-16th), Tom Kean Jr. (R-21st), Linda Greenstein (D-14th) and Troy Singleton (D-7th), upgrades the crime of hazing from a disorderly persons offense, which is answerable in municipal court, to a fourth-degree crime, which is answerable in Superior Court, if it causes bodily injury, and to a third-degree crime if it causes serious bodily injury.
The legislation would also require high schools, universities and student organizations, including fraternities, to take a more active role in preventing and punishing hazing activities.
“Hazing is a despicable crime disguised as a game against one’s peers, often resulting in physical or mental trauma, or worse,” Bateman said. “No student deserves to go through the ritual humiliation that Timothy Piazza experienced on the night that he died. With the enactment of this bill, hazing will no longer be tolerated in New Jersey’s high schools and colleges.”
Piazza, a Hunterdon Central High School graduate, participated in a hazing ritual at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity in which he consumed 18 alcoholic drinks in 82 minutes. His blood alcohol content was between .28 and .35 percent, five times the legal limit.
Piazza fell down a flight of stairs during the hazing and fraternity members waited until the next morning before calling for medical help.
His parents, James and Evelyn Piazza, have mounted a nationwide campaign to increase the criminal penalties for hazing.
Their lawsuit against 28 Beta Theta Pi brothers who participated in the ritual is still pending in Pennsylvania Middle Federal Court. More than 475 documents have been filed in the case surrounding the 100-page lawsuit.
The Piazzas have already settled separate litigation with Penn State and the fraternity.
“More than half of all students are hazed at some point during their college career,” Kean said. “We won’t allow this culture of humiliation and violence to continue in New Jersey. Our legislation sends a clear message: if you engage in hazing, you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.”
Bateman said he was inspired to introduce the legislation after he received a letter from Matthew Prager, a 12-year-old Readington student who was also Timothy Piazza’s friend and neighbor.
In his letter, Matthew said that hazing is "often ignored" and the state's current law is "weak and unclear."
"Even though I am just 12 years old, I know how bad hazing could be," he wrote the state senator.