The recent death of Penn State student Michael Piazza has focused the media on the alleged cruelty and willful negligence of young men who ostensibly were friends and soon to be “brothers” with the victim.
The reaction that I have most often encountered is “How could this happen?” Is Penn State an evil place filled with savages without respect for human life? Are fraternities in general horrible institutions that produce only misogyny and drunkenness among their members?
The facts of the case will become clearer and the legal responsibilities decided over the coming years in criminal and civil proceedings that are sure to be as gruesome as they are informative to parents and students at Penn State and other Universities.
Based on my lengthy experience in representing college students I have only insight at this point and will await the court proceedings for a more complete answer to the question of “How could this happen?”
What I do know is that young people today, whether in college or not, are consuming alcohol with very different motivations than they did 20 or more years ago. “Back in the day”, as we older folks refer to the 70’s, 80’s and even the 90’s, learning to consume alcohol was part of the social development of most young people. In addition to “getting a buzz” the objective was to have fun, socialize with men or women with whom we might find an attraction to and develop relationships. My experience in representing students over the last decade tells me that a very different set of motivations exist today.
Many of my clients, who have been charged with everything from Aggravated Assault to simple underage consumption, admit to beginning their adventure with the objective of “blacking out”. They seek relief from stressors that prior generations either didn’t have or were otherwise more manageable to them. Alcohol is being used pharmaceutically rather than socially.
When a black out condition or even worse unconsciousness is the objective, it is easy to see why vast amounts of straight vodka or rum are consumed to pursue the objective. The end result of this is that the average student taken to the hospital with alcohol overdose issues now presents at BAC levels approaching .30. At these levels a person’s central nervous system is depressed to the same degree as it would be under general surgical anesthesia.
Both the victim and the alleged perpetrators in the Beta Theta Pi case here at Penn State were apparently very intoxicated and became so in a very short period of time. Judgements are clouded, reasoning is impossible and impulses are too quickly followed when blood alcohol levels approach .30.
The bottom line is that rapid consumption of straight 40 to 50 proof alcohol can only lead to serious bodily injury, arrest and, in this case a tragic death. As a result of the Piazza trials and attendant publicity, students will this fall face what I feel will be a different and more stringent set of enforcement measures from both the University and local law enforcement. The time to change behaviors is upon them, whether they like it or not.