The Secret Sorority at Penn State’s Deadly Hazing Party
Penn State has vowed to implement tough measures on Greek life after the death of an undergrad at a frat party—but one popular sorority has escaped the new restrictions.
Following 19-year-old Tim Piazza’s death in February after a night of hazing at Penn State University’s Beta Theta Pi house, a grand jury criminally charged 18 young men in connection with their pledge’s death. Administrators permanently banned the fraternity, and scrambled to announce safeguards intended to protect future students.
Recruitment and rush at Penn State was postponed for a semester, hard liquor and kegs banned, and the school will more closely monitor houses for underage drinking. Socials—or parties between men and women’s groups like the one where Piazza spent his final hours—were cut to 10 a semester and new report cards for the campus’s 83 Greek organizations will make public each group’s history of violations for hazing, alcohol, and sexual and other misconduct.
But one sorority, a group of some 100 young women known as Trilogy, won’t appear on Penn State’s new report cards and is unlikely to face any of these sanctions. Never mind the fact that, according to the grand jury report, its underage members were present at the very party where Piazza was forced to chug cheap vodka, shotgun beers, and run through an alcohol obstacle course while his brothers poured beer on top of him. Piazza was “trying to get around” two of the “sorority women sitting on the stairs,” when he fell, head first, 15 feet down them, according to a lawyer for one of the charged students.
The members of Trilogy won’t be included in these new safety measures. Because, despite its origins and social activities, Trilogy is not a sorority. Not technically. Not in the eyes of Penn State.
Trilogy was born in 2009, out of the ashes of Penn State’s Delta Delta Delta sorority, which had been shuttered by the national executive board due to “alleged hazing and risk-management violations,” according to a press release from the national sorority at the time. Risk-management violations deal with the unauthorized use of drugs and alcohol.
While sororities are often closed for low enrollment numbers, all-women organizations rarely have had their charters revoked for hazing or alcohol abuse. The details of the month-long investigation that led to the closure of Tri Delta at Penn State have remained private. The Daily Beast reached out to former reporters for the college paper and over 50 former members, few of whom were willing to comment on the allegations. “Obviously, no one died,” said one alumni, who asked not to be named.
The national office also refused to elaborate on details of the alleged hazing, but provided a statement from Tri Delta Chief Executive Officer Karen Hughes White:
“Tri Delta withdrew the charter of our Alpha Phi Chapter at Penn State in 2009 for behaviors that do not align with our purpose and standards. There is no Tri Delta chapter at Penn State. We do not support nor do we have any connection with the Trilogy organization.”
Still, a connection seems obvious. Immediately following Tri Delta’s closure, 61 ex-members handed in resignation letters and formed a new organization—Trilogy—with the purpose of continuing on for Penn State’s main philanthropic campus event: THON, a 46-hour dance marathon that raises money for the fight against childhood cancer. Trilogy even retained Tri Delta’s fraternity partner, Kappa Delta Rho, and the university still considered it a Greek pairing, a student public relations representative of THON told the college newspaper at the time.
A press release distributed at the time of Tri Delta’s closing by the national office said the sorority hoped to return sometime in the future, but requests for its return had been denied. In 2013, the Panhellenic Council formally invited Delta Delta Delta back on campus, but the national office declined to reinstate the chapter.
And in the last eight years, despite the national chapter refusing those efforts to bring the Tri Delta sorority back, the women of Trilogy have continued to recruit members, party with fraternities, and participate in campus-wide events usually reserved for Greek organizations. The only thing missing seems to be the oversight.
“Trilogy is not held to the same rules as other sororities, and does not face the same repercussions,” said one student involved with the student-governing council of Greek organizations, who asked not to be named for fear of administrative backlash. “Panhellenic chapters have rules pertaining to how much they can social, on what days, and how many members. There are ‘social checkers’ and other precautions that sororities must adhere to. Our chapters also register all social interactions with the governing board, so we know where they are, when, and with who. We work hand in hand with the university and operate from our national organization. To be in a Panhellenic chapter there are GPA requirements and other responsibilities. We have standards of excellence, which must be met each year pertaining for educational programming, philanthropy, and community service.”
The student also noted that Trilogy was one of two underground sororities to operate on campus. The other, she said, was Epsilon Sigma Alpha, a national service organization known as ESA, which formed shortly after the closing of Chi Omega in 2014. That sorority lost its national charter after photos surfaced of pledges at parties dressed in ponchos, wearing sombreros and mustaches, and holding signs that read, “Will mow lawn for weed + beer.” A representative of Penn State's ESA chapter declined to go on the record, but denied the characterization.
Trilogy’s current activities are just as secretive as the reason for Tri Delta’s expulsion. An interview request sent to the organization went unanswered, as did emails and phone calls to dozens of current members. And the distinction between Trilogy and other recognized sororities can be difficult for an outsider to identify. In group photos posted to Facebook, the women of Trilogy wear all-white and cock their heads to the side while family and friends comment, praising their freshman for “pledging” and joining Trilogy, whose members refer to each other as sisters, and hold the letters “OG,” a nod to the tradition of Greek letters. Trilogy is also ranked 26th out of 29 sororities on campus on the unofficial, unscientific, crowd-sourced site GreekRank.com. A recent review for Trilogy reads, “Letters schmetters. Hot, fun, and social.”
And in various photos on social media, the women form their hands into the shape of triangles—a signal known in the Greek system to belong to Trilogy’s forebear, Delta Delta Delta. (To be sure, Penn State’s hand symbol for THON also happens to be a diamond, which can look quite a bit like the Tri-Delt symbol.)
Penn State told The Daily Beast that it had never received “verifiable evidence” of secret sororities on campus. Trilogy, Penn State asserts, is a student organization like 1,100 others, but will eventually be investigated for any wrongdoing on the night of Piazza’s death.
“Every aspect of these issues is being scrutinized by leaders at Penn State,” said Lisa Powers, senior director of Penn State’s Office of Strategic Communications. “Student Activities is currently looking at the night in question, including whether Trilogy violated any of the policies or code of conduct for student organizations. If there is evidence of a violation, Trilogy will face a hearing before the Student Organization Conduct Committee.”
The Office of Student Activities did not return a request for comment.
Underground fraternities and sororities aren’t unique to Penn State, and Trilogy has not been accused of any wrongdoing—in Piazza’s death or otherwise. At the same time, Trilogy’s complete lack of advisers, national oversight, general leadership, and risk-management training makes it a worst-case scenario for a campus organization, according to students and parents on campus who told The Daily Beast that placing restrictions on fraternities and sororities and ignoring groups like Trilogy is naive.
“Trilogy has been allowed to continue with no advisers, no oversight, and Penn State is well aware of it,” said a sorority collegiate adviser who asked to remain anonymous because she has a daughter involved in Greek life at Penn State.
Trilogy markets itself to freshman using that limited oversight as an incentive, she said.
“Dues for a national sorority are about $700. Trilogy’s are $80. These girls say, ‘We party with the frats, can party as many nights as we want, participate in THON, and we don’t have any advisers or old ladies telling us what we can do. How can you lose?’ I would never let my kids join that.
“If the university wants to protect students,” she continued, “it needs to implement their changes for Trilogy, and across all student organizations.”
UPDATE: This story has been updated to include a response from a Penn State ESA representative.