OXFORD, Ohio — Tyler Perino found himself at a crossroads. The 18-year-old had just spent a night he didn't remember in an Oxford hospital. His girlfriend and parents were scared - and mad. He had bruises. And he felt like the texts of support from the guys he had been with the night before weren't genuine.
He wasn't sure what was going to happen next.
Now, more than one year later, he knows exactly what he has to do.
"The goal would be to see hazing as a felony," Perino said. "I just hope that I'm able to get my message out there. People need to hear it."
March 16, 2019
A chilly Saturday was off to a strange start.
"The pledgemasters texted in the group chat something like, 'We advise you guys not to do any day drinking today,'" Perino recalled. "It kind of threw off a red flag in my head."
Normally, Perino said, he'd meet with friends and fellow Delta Tau Delta pledges at Miami University for "Beat the Clock," a happy hour with progressive deals. Guaranteed to get you drunk. He told his girlfriend he had a bad feeling about it.
"I remember showing her that text and explaining it to her," he said. "I was like, 'Maybe you should come check on me tonight.'"
Perino said he arrived at the Delts' house at 220 Talawanda at 6:45 p.m. that evening and was blindfolded.
It was the night he was going to find out who his "Big" was – a critical night for pledges.
"I remember people coming up to me on and off, spitting beer in my face, whispering things in my ear such as 'You're so effed; the worst is yet to come,'" Perino said. "I was kind of getting pretty nervous, not sure what was going to happen."
Perino said the group heard rumors this was "Big-Little" night. He was about to find out which fraternity "family" he would be in. But first, he said, he was thrown against a wall with other pledges.
"A kid to my right, one of the other pledges, I hear a kind of clapping sound kind of between the legs and then all of the sudden I hear him get whacked," he said. "Then I get hit with the paddle and I turn around and I'm screaming and crying and I say, 'I don't want to be a part of this shit anymore.'"
Perino said he heard others in the room laughing, telling him this was the worst of it. It got easier from here. He says his "Big" handed him a six pack of Smirnoff Ice and told him to finish it. Then handed him a bottle of Crown Royal – the "family drink" – and told him he had to finish it before the end of the night.
"One of the active members told me and one of the other pledges to play a game called 'Chug Until you Puke' with our bottle of liquor, so we were around the trash can actually chugging until we puked," he said. "I ended up getting paddled at least ten more times."
In a Miami University report, Perino told investigators he was paddled on his "bare butt" and asked to go back to his dorm room at Collins Hall.
"My girlfriend was at my dorm room. She said that my 'Big' dropped me off at my dorm room, and at that time I was face down in my bed, puking, and she tried to turn me over and change my clothes," Perino said. "After that happened, she said that I told her that I felt like I was going to die and she called 911."
Court and university investigative documents show Perino's blood alcohol content was .231 after he was admitted to the hospital. Ohio's legal limit to drive is .08.
"I just felt like demoralized and kind of like, 'Why did I let someone do that stuff to me?'" he said.
"I woke up to a string of texts from his girlfriend," said Perino's mom, Laura. "I was just picking out words – 'police,' 'emergency room,' 'emergency squad.'"
Laura Perino's main concern was the bruising on his butt – the paddling. Tyler's girlfriend said he tried telling the hospital staff about it, but was too intoxicated to be coherent. A university health center would find them later.
"When I saw the bruises, that's what horrified me," she said. "I got angry. You send your child away to school, you never think that they're going to be harmed in any way or assaulted in any way."
Delta Tau Delta's nation headquarters revoked the chapter's charter. After an investigation, Miami University suspended Delta Tau Delta for up to 15 years.
A Butler County grand jury indicted 18 members of the chapter. All pleaded guilty to one count of hazing, a misdemeanor.
"I feel like that was complete BS," he said.
Weeks after Perino's hospitalization, Miami University rolled out previously planned new rules to prevent hazing. They included requiring fraternity members to complete training courses and shortening the fraternity pledging period.
Perino moved back home to Toledo, leaving the trauma – and his girlfriend – behind in Oxford. He enrolled in the psychology program at the University of Toledo, started working, and started focusing on regaining his physical and mental health.
'That kid is courage'
Perino hasn't talked much about what happened to him inside the house on Tallawanda Drive. But that's about to change.
"Most people who go through what I went through don't survive," he said. "So I feel as if, even though this terrible thing did happen to me, I feel as if it's my job to speak for those kids who don't have a voice about it."
Kids like Collin Wiant, an 18-year-old from suburban Columbus. Smart, athletic, well-liked.
"Sometimes you didn't know whether to get mad at him or to laugh," his dad, Wade, said. "He lived in the moment and he was a great friend, a great son, and a great sibling."
Wiant was pledging the Sigma Pi Epsilon chapter at Ohio University in 2018, when police say he inhaled a "whippit" at a party. He died of asphyxiation from nitrous oxide ingestion. In a lawsuit, his parents claimed he had been hazed, too, "pelted with eggs, hit with a belt, and repeatedly punched," and forced to drink and do drugs.
Kathleen and Wade Wiant have since fought to make hazing a felony, getting Collin's Law through the Ohio House last month. Ohio University expelled Sigma Pi and, in 2019, suspended all fraternities and sororities. A grand jury indicted nine former Sigma Pi members in Wiant's death.
The Wiants have spoken across the country about the dangers of hazing, part of the Anti-Hazing Coalition of other parents who have lost children.
"I am going to be doing it as long as I can until the day I die," Kathleen Wiant said.
They heard about Perino and his experience and connected with him and his family quickly.
"The first thing that went through my mind was, 'That kid is courage,'" Kathleen Wiant said. "You never hear of the Tylers, the kids who walk out in the middle of it, because it is that hard, you're that emotionally manipulated."
"I believe in divine intervention and there's a reason why he survived, and thank God he did," said Wade Wiant. "My advice to him is, there's a reason and there's a purpose for you, and this is probably it. It's laid out pretty clearly, to be an advocate on the victim's side."
The Wiants aren't the only family that heard Perino's story and reached out for support, and with an opportunity.
'There's so many Tylers out there. We just don't know about them'
In 2017, Tim Piazza was a freshman at Penn State.
"He was a goofy, but big-hearted, guy," his dad, Jim, said.
The former high school football player was pledging Beta Theta Pi. On Bid Acceptance Night, Piazza was forced to drink 18 alcoholic beverages in under 90 minutes.
Video showed him falling down stairs and vomiting, often barely conscious. Other fraternity brothers at the party waited 11 hoursto call for medical help. More than one dozen students were charged in Piazza's death.
Jim and Evelyn Piazza launched a two-pronged effort to make change. First, they focused on making hazing a felony in Pennsylvania. The Timothy J. Piazza Antihazing Law was signed in 2018.
Around the same time, the Piazzas were creating the Anti-Hazing Coalition, speaking to tens of thousands of students nationwide.
"I feel like I have a hand on my shoulder, like he's there with me saying, 'It's OK, you need to do this," Jim Piazza said. "We think he would want us to do this, to make a difference for others."
Piazza gets alerts any time hazing makes news.
The most widely-cited research on hazing indicates that 55% of college students involved in a club, team, or organization have experienced what could be considered hazing.
It found 95% of students did not report hazing events to campus officials.
That's why Piazza, like the Wiants, is working with Perino to refine his message and start to share it nationwide.
"A message from individuals like Tyler is critically important," Piazza said. "There are so many Tylers out there. We just don't know about them because they haven't stepped up, they haven't wanted to speak out."
'The end goal is just to give people guidance'
Perino said he is already working on that, with the help of the Piazzas and Wiants. He said he's recorded a podcast with New York University about student safety. And he's looking forward to working to change how people approach hazing.
"Unfortunately, when someone does die, it's too late," he said. "I think they need to start treating it more serious when someone does live."
He supports Collin's Law – and changing how the justice system approaches hazing.
"Being beaten like [I was], that's not just a misdemeanor," he said. "That should be felonious assault. So I feel like, just changing that and making punishments more strict is going to save a lot of lives."