The Panhellenic Council sponsored a self-defense seminar last week in Freeborn Hall for hundreds of sorority sisters with an instructor who turned out to be a con artist.
David Portnoy, also known as Dave Parker, contacted the Panhellenic Council and offered to put on a free safety seminar for women. Last Monday, 80 percent of all eight Panhellenic sororities were required to attend the seminar.
Portnoy taught the women basic self-defense moves and told them various stories which may or may not have been true to scare them into buying his products.
“He said the reason he does these presentations is because he works with a group called Safety Seminars which was created by a judge in Missouri, Lawrence Portnoy, whose daughter had been abducted and raped 22 to 28 times in five days,” said Courtney Rawitch, the Programming Chair of Panhellenic.
Portnoy told the women the best way to protect themselves from an attacker is with a specific pepper spray he was selling. He also told them the proceeds went to the judge’s daughter.
Sharon Footlik, a sorority member who was present at the seminar, said Portnoy used scare tactics to sell the women his product. He mentioned that rape victims could be one’s mother or sisters, and claimed that his special pepper spray could reach long distances and was strong enough to harm a bear.
On Tuesday following the event, Rawitch began receiving e-mails and phone calls regarding the man’s authenticity. Sorority members discovered that on the Women’s Safety Education Group’s website, it specifically states that Portnoy is not a part of their organization though he claims to be.
Rawitch said women began to “overreact” and test their pepper sprays, which some claimed were tomato juice. Rawitch contacted the police that tested the spray and concluded it was real. She filed an incident report and police attempted to reach Portnoy.
“People were concerned they had been scammed out of their money but they paid for pepper spray, and that is what they got,“ said Rawitch in an e-mail interview. “It may not be as outstanding as he claimed, like that it would shoot through a wind storm and has UV in it that will stay on your attacker’s face like a residue and will be visible in black light for 10 days, but it will deter an attacker.“
Footlik said she found the same pepper spray online for $10, whereas Portnoy sold his for $18 each or $30 for two.
“We respect Panhellenic and the way that they get speakers to come and talk to us,” Footlik said. “He was teaching us self defense, and they were legitimate moves.“
Other stories Portnoy included as scare tactics was that of a woman who was attacked in a dorm shower and used his pepper spray to spray her attacker’s genitalia, after which she was able to get away.
“I feel bad for Panhellenic because they had good intentions,” said a sorority woman who wished to remain anonymous. “I feel like men-rapists take advantage of women in that way, and it’s ironic that [Portnoy] too is taking advantage of women. It’s oppressive.“
“I think that Panhellenic should admit their mistake and I think that they are making it worst by not saying anything and not apologizing,” she said.
Rawitch said she put a lot of work into putting this event together and hopes that people can learn from the experience.
“I am very upset by the whole situation because of the time and energy I put into bringing a speaker to our campus that would relate to everyone and keep the women entertained,” she said. “I just wanted people to be more aware and keep themselves safe.“
This is not the first time that Portnoy has targeted sororities. In November 2006, an article was published in The Depauw about Portnoy’s presentation at Depauw University in Indiana.
Portnoy also sent Rawitch a letter prior to the event claiming he worked with Girl Scouts of America, NFL cheerleading camps and has appeared on Oprah. His website listed in the letter, twwwa.com, does not work.
Panhellenic has drafted letters warning all other sorority headquarters and has contacted the Campus Violence Prevention Program for statistics to provide to Panhellenic’s members.
“We hope people can learn from this experience to always double check on people who contact you because we are all made increasingly accessible to people who have bad intentions,” Rawitch said.
ANGELA RUGGIERO can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.