Whistleblower: Penn State ignored frat abuse complaints

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Posted: Jun 08, 2015 4:51 PM
Whistleblower: Penn State ignored frat abuse complaints

PHILADELPHIA (AP) — A former student who blew the whistle on a Penn State fraternity's secret Facebook page featuring photos of naked women said the university ignored his complaints about sexual assault, hazing and drug use.

James Vivenzio of Great Falls, Virginia, said in a lawsuit filed Monday that he waited eight months for Penn State to take action before going to police in January.

As a freshman pledge, he said, he was burned with cigarettes, force-fed buckets of liquor mixed with urine, vomit and hot sauce and made to guzzle alcohol as part of fraternity hazing rituals. He compared his experience at Kappa Delta Rho to being in "a gang" and said he feared someone would end up dead.

"I never intended to become a whistleblower," Vivenzio, now 21, said at a news conference in Philadelphia on Monday. "I was afraid somebody could die unless the abuse, the Facebook 2.0 site, and all that was going on, were shut down."

Penn State quickly denied the claims filed in the lawsuit, which named the school, the fraternity and others as defendants.

University officials said it offered "extraordinary assistance" to Vivenzio, including sending an investigator to his home after he left school.

"Neither he nor his family were willing to file a complaint, provide documentation, speak with State College police or participate in pursuing the formal disciplinary process," the school said in a statement.

Penn State recently suspended Kappa Delta Rho for three years. The fraternity's national office on Monday expelled 38 fraternity members, saying they violated the fraternity's values.

Kappa Delta Rho executive director Joseph Rosenberg, however, said fraternity members who assumed responsibility for their actions would not be expelled.

The fraternity expulsions have no effect on the students' status at the university.

Penn State announced in March that its investigation found some members had engaged in sexual harassment that contributed to a "persistent climate of humiliation" for women.

Vivenzio had turned over dozens of texts describing hazing or drug abuse, along with posted photos of men and women, sometimes naked or in sexually suggestive positions, passed out at parties, the lawsuit said.

Amid the hazing, Vivenzio flunked out his freshman year, family lawyer Aaron J. Freiwald said. He returned home during the spring 2013 term, sought treatment for alcohol problems, tried school again last fall, and was eventually hospitalized this year for post-traumatic stress. He first complained to the school in April 2014.

An investigator with the school's Office of Student Conduct visited his Virginia home in April 2014 to talk about the allegations. The family said they never heard anything back.

Vivenzio's parents attended Monday's news conference but declined to answer questions.

Asked why Vivenzio didn't simply quit the fraternity, Freiwald said the prevailing "bro culture" on many campuses makes that harder than it sounds.

"There's a social stigma attached to leaving a fraternity," Freiwald said.

Freiwald compared the school's silence to its "painfully slow" response to the Jerry Sandusky sexual-abuse scandal.

"I don't think it's hard to make the connection to the Sandusky affair here," he said. "The attitude of keeping this in-house, perhaps looking the other way, certainly being painfully slow to respond, is identical."