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COMMENTARY: We must not conflate stigma of formerly incarcerated to fraternity membership

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On April 3, three young men from Pennsylvania State University were sentenced to jail time for the role they played in the death of another man on campus. The men had been members of Beta Theta Pi, a fraternity. The deceased, Timothy Piazza, was trying to gain entry into Beta Theta Pi in early 2017. 

During a hazing ritual at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house, Piazza drank 18 drinks in 82 minutes. With a blood alcohol content four-and-a-half times the legal limit, Piazza fell down stairs and sustained a traumatic brain injury. After 12 hours of waiting, the members of Beta Theta Pi finally called 911. 

But at that point, it was too late, and there was nothing that could be done for Piazza. When I first read about this case, I was saddened, but I was not shocked. Hazing, like sexual assault, is something we as a society have come to not only associate with greek life, but also expect of fraternities.

Cut to April 10. I was sitting in the clinical office of Rutgers Law School when I received an email announcing the events planned for Petey Greene Prison Awareness Week. I looked at the email, audibly laughed and passed it to my partner, who was equally astonished by the ridiculousness of the first event. 

Alongside events on voting rights, education and life after prison is “Greek vs. Street,” which features a panel of formerly incarcerated individuals and current fraternity members discussing the stigma and stereotypes that each group faces because of membership in their respective groups.

The false equivalence made between stigma facing fraternity members and stigma facing formerly incarcerated individuals is wildly inappropriate. What does stigma look like for the formerly incarcerated? It looks like a lifetime of struggling to find employment, fearing homelessness, being denied healthcare and a litany of other concerns. 

Stigma for the formerly incarcerated is always being considered lesser, violent, lazy or diseased by huge swaths of society, no matter how hard one might fight to show that these adjectives do not apply. Compare this situation to that of fraternity members, whose lifetime effects of membership include increased expected wealth and all the benefits that come with it. 

Reducing stigma associated with the formerly incarcerated means reversing the almost complete dehumanization that has been forced onto people that have gone through a period of state-mandated trauma. Reducing stigma associated with fraternity membership means no longer holding people culpable for participating in an elitist and exclusionary system, which often protects individuals from facing consequences for heinous actions.

Events like “Greek vs. Street” co-opt the very real struggles of justice-involved people in order to play to the growing trend of privileged groups claiming victimization in order to escape public scrutiny. In recent years, coverage of fraternities has not been positive. Last year, CNN reported that since 2005, 77 people have died as a result of fraternity activities. 

Books like "Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town" by Jon Krakauer, documentaries like "The Hunting Ground" and a countless number of new stories have shined a light on sexual assault by fraternities. Fraternities associated with the University of Oklahoma, Syracuse University, University of Georgia and many others have been suspended or closed entirely as a result of racist actions by fraternity members. Increasingly negative coverage of fraternities has resulted in fraternities going on the defensive. 

Enter “Greek vs. Street.” “Greek vs. Street” is only the most recent example of fraternities painting themselves as embattled groups facing the onslaught of a society that seeks to tear them down. This is the “War on Christmas” of campus life, and it is equally absurd.

Brandon Morrissey is a clinical law student in Rutgers Law School.

*Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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