University of Virginia leaders said Tuesday that a ban on fraternity activities may be extended and pledged to increase campus safety and change the school’s sex, alcohol and fraternity culture after a searing report of an alleged gang rape at a 2012 frat party.
The O’Melveny & Myers LLP law firm will conduct an independent investigation of the alleged crime and UVA’s response, according to the Virginia Attorney General’s office. UVA President Teresa A. Sullivan imposed the fraternity suspension over the weekend. Extending it beyond the original end date of Jan. 9 would mean the Greek houses would be barred from activities into the Spring term, which begins three days later.
George Martin, rector of UVA’s Board of Visitors, apologized to the student, identified as Jackie, whose alleged rape was chronicled in an article by Rolling Stone. Martin called the situation a crisis and the board’s “top priority.” Students at UVA minimized the seriousness of Jackie’s assault and administrators responded ineffectually, the magazine reported.
“We’re going to spend the coming days, weeks, months, however long it takes to make sure the honor we speak about is maintained every day,” Sullivan said at the meeting. “Let’s be a catalyst for change. Let’s do it here and let’s do it now.”
Alumni have written to complain that rape has been a longstanding issue at UVA that the school has failed to confront, Sullivan said. Some of the most elite organizations at the campus are part of the problem, said Ryan Leach, who graduated this year.
“There are people in our school that are considered members of the elite and represent the culture of honor when they, themselves, have been perpetrators of sexual assault,” Leach said in a phone interview. “Even people who have done bad things are allowed to participate in that culture without question.”
The uproar at UVA puts the school among those that have been shocked by harmful behaviors at fraternities. More than 75 people have died in fraternity-related incidents across the country since 2005, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Almost a third of UVA students belong to a fraternity or sorority, according to the school.
Faculty spoke out against UVA’s administration for keeping a “legal firewall” between itself and campus organizations, including fraternities. Terms of the agreement with such affiliated organizations establish “conditions of deniability” for harmful and dangerous events, according to a letter to the board from the school’s Council of Chair and Directors, a group of department and unit heads.
Those terms should be restructured to allow greater oversight and ensure organizations’ compliance with laws and standards, the council said in the Nov. 24 letter. The Rolling Stone article calls into question UVA’s commitment to student safety, Sullivan said.
“If we can’t deliver on this fundamental duty, then we have failed,” she said Tuesday at the board meeting. “Foremost in my mind is thoroughly investigating these allegations.”
While the board’s aggressive approach is a positive sign, any policy change should take into account the input of students, especially those who have experienced sexual assault and its aftermath, said Jen Casto, 28, a master’s student in public policy who has worked with Take Back the Night, a nonprofit advocacy group, to fight sexual violence.
“The Board of Visitors definitely has a lot of power in determining university policy, but I think the voices of students, the voices of sexual advocates, the voices of survivors need to be heard and considered,” she said in a telephone interview.
The board’s meeting “gave me hope,” said Sara Firestone, a member of the One Less sexual assault activist group at UVA.
“Seeing the board committed to take a stance against sexual assault on grounds and welcoming student activism was not something I necessarily expected, but I am definitely pleased,” Firestone, a senior, said Tuesday in an e-mail.
Four weeks into her freshman year, Jackie was invited to a party at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity chapter by a member she met when they both worked as lifeguards, according to Rolling Stone. At the party, her date led her to a bedroom where she was raped by seven men, who cheered each other on, according to the article. Some of Jackie’s friends urged her not to report the rape for fear of damaging their social standing, Rolling Stone reported.
At the end of her first year, Jackie reported the incident to Dean Nicole Eramo on the advice of a psychiatrist, according to the article. The dean explained various options such as filing a criminal report, filing a formal complaint with the school’s Sexual Misconduct Board that would lead to a campus hearing, or using an “informal resolution” process to speak to the alleged attackers.
“There were people in that room who saw and heard what is being called shocking and horrifying and gut wrenching and sickening,” Charlottesville Police Chief Tim Longo said at the UVA board meeting. “I hope there are bystanders with moral courage who will come forth and help us with this investigation.”
Eramo said she heard that the alleged assailants have graduated, according to Rolling Stone.
In a Nov. 20 statement published in the school newspaper, UVA’s Phi Kappa Psi chapter called the scene depicted in the article “beyond unacceptable,” and pledged the chapter’s cooperation with any investigation.
Stories like Jackie’s are key to forcing students and schools to acknowledge the impact of sexual assault, said Hannah Huston, a UVA junior who majors in studies of women, gender and sexuality. The issue goes beyond campus and Greek culture, and Jackie’s story is helping people from all backgrounds discuss it, said Huston, who said she was sexually assaulted.
“It’s helping me finally address it and open up and release some of the pain inside,” she said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “I talked to a friend who was a survivor herself and I had no idea.”
Schools across the U.S. are taking action against fraternities where dangerous and harmful incidents have taken place. Clemson University suspended fraternity activities in September at its campus in South Carolina after a student, Tyler Hipps, died in a fall from a bridge during an early morning run with fraternity members. Hipps was a member of Sigma Phi Epsilon, which has banned hazing.
California State University at Northridge suspended a chapter of Pi Kappa Phi chapter in September after a student died on a hike. The chapter later agreed to disband. The same month, Penn State Altoona barred a fraternity for six years amid probes into a student suicide that was under investigation for links to hazing.
“Sexual violence is a problem in fraternities and in the Greek system,” Tommy Reid, president of UVA’s Inter-Fraternity Council, said at the meeting. “We don’t want to hide that. We need to change it.”
With the suspension, Sullivan is unfairly punishing all of UVA’s fraternities for the allegations against Phi Kappa Psi, said Peter Smithhisler, president and chief executive officer of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, based in Indianapolis.
The measure “does not promote a collaborative approach to the issue,” Smithhisler said Tuesday in a telephone interview. “This is a college or universitywide issue. It’s not an issue limited solely to fraternities and sororities.”
The conference, which has 350,000 undergraduate members, formed commissions this year to study hazing, sexual misconduct and alcohol abuse that are working to provide final reports and recommendations by March 1, 2016. Allen Groves, dean of students at UVA and immediate past chairman of the conference, is heading the sexual-assault commission.
With assistance from Michael McDonald in Boston and David Glovin, Allyson Versprille, Michelle F. Davis and Danielle Burger in New York.
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