Powerful Conversations, Emotions Shared at UM Event on Hazing

Families of Max Gruver and Tim Piazza share stories of sons' deaths, call for change in culture

Audience members watch a video as Evelyn Piazza (left), Rae Ann Gruver and Steve Gruver share their sons’ stories. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

OXFORD, Miss. – Painful memories and brutal facts were revealed Tuesday (Oct. 9) at the University of Mississippif     as the parents of Max Gruver and Tim Piazza detailed how their sons died from binge drinking during separate fraternity hazing incidents in 2017.

More than 1,000 people from the community filled the Gertrude C. Ford Center for the Performing Arts for “Family Matters: A Community Conversation on Hazing.” The audience listened intently as Steve and Rae Ann Gruver and Evelyn Piazza spoke frankly about the trauma surrounding the two tragic fatalities that were among four separate pledge deaths across the country last year.

The trio also called upon student leaders to join campus administrators in effecting a “no-hazing” culture on campus.

“This hazing has to stop,” Evelyn Piazza said. “It has no place on college campuses. It’s time to end hazing and to save lives.”

On Feb. 3, 2017, Piazza’s son, who attended Pennsylvania State University, was served 18 drinks in roughly an hour-and-a-half during a Beta Theta Pi fraternity pledge initiation called “The Gauntlet.” The 19-year-old fell several times, including down a flight of stairs, causing numerous traumatic injuries.

Members didn’t get him medical attention until the next morning. He died Feb. 4, 2017.

During an initiation called “Bible Study,” senior Phi Delta Theta fraternity members at Louisiana State University instructed Gruver, 18, and other pledges to chug 190-proof Diesel liquor. He died Sept. 14 with a blood-alcohol level of .496, more than six times the state’s legal driving limit.

“Max was made to drink Diesel, which is the highest-potency alcohol there is,” Rae Ann Gruver said. “No one tried to save him by calling 911. Can you really call this a brotherhood – subjecting pledges to life-threatening activities?”

Steve Gruver shared how hazing is a misdemeanor in Mississippi punishable by a fine of up to $2,000 and six months in jail. In states where hazing is a felony, those convicted have permanent criminal records.

Rae Ann Gruver (left) listens as her husband, Steve, warns Ole Miss students about the dangers and damage of hazing. Photo by Kevin Bain/Ole Miss Digital Imaging Services

“You’re guilty of hazing even if you’re a bystander,” Gruver said. “If you see someone in distress or in need of medical attention and don’t call for help, you can be charged and convicted of involuntary manslaughter.”

Using video and photo stills, the Gruvers and Piazza shared pertinent information about the manners and types of hazing, number of campus hazing deaths nationally since 2005 and actions that can be taken to counter hazing.

“The destruction caused by hazing is far-ranging and forever,” Piazza said. “Consider the consequences. Don’t think it won’t happen here, because it can and it does. Please listen to us. Don’t haze.”

Arthur Doctor Jr., UM director of fraternal leadership and learning, and student Brittany Brown served as moderators for the event. Ann Weston Sistrunk, College Panhellenic president, gave a welcome; Randon Hill, National Pan-Hellenic Council president, introduced the presenters; and Bennett Wilfong, Interfraternity Council representative, gave closing words to those in attendance.

“Hazing should have no place on our campus if we will all live by the words of the UM Creed,” Wilfong said. “Speaking up will not be easy, but it’s the right thing to do.

“Let’s care for one another, get involved, make the right decisions and spread this message: hazing isn’t allowed here.”

For a second year, Ole Miss administrators addressed high-risk behaviors on campus in an open letter to the campus in September. Other steps taken include:

  • Mandatory prospective new member education regarding alcohol/drugs and violence prevention/sexual assault
  • Launch of the Livesafe app
  • Updates to the event registration process to address safety and help curb high-risk behavior
  • Recruitment visits and assessments by National Interfraternity Council representatives.

To report any concerning behavior, complete the Hazing Report Form at http://umatter.olemiss.edu/hazinginfo/.