An unofficial trial for a hush-hush crime

ALEXA FONTANILLA / AGGIE

Greek life boycotts fraternity with several unreported assaults

This article was written initially for a University Writing Program journalism course (UWP 104C) during Winter Quarter. The Aggie occasionally publishes freelance work submitted by students from UWP 104C courses.

 

Content Warning: sexual assault, rape

 

Since 2014, the University of California (UC) has given new attention to sexual assault, overhauling policies and improving the consistency of its systems across campuses. Through UC President Janet Napolitano’s 29-person task force, UC campuses have focused on reducing victim blaming, creating new advocacy resources and improving education.

The system for investigating a student organization — like a fraternity — that is connected to a sexual assault remains undefined despite these efforts. According to Donald Dudley, the director of Student Judicial Affairs, UC Davis has never investigated a student organization in connection with a sexual assault committed by one of its members over the course of his 25-year career.

Investigations occur in other ways. In 2014, for example, the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity was almost shut down following an alleged sexual assault at its house. According to a former brother heavily involved in the process, the national chapter stepped in to manage the situation. This coincided with “like 10 members” of the original group remaining in the fraternity, the brother said.

However, the fraternity’s national chapter treated the case as an alcohol-related offense rather than as a sexual assault, according to the ex-brother, who wished to remain anonymous. He said that it seemed that no one involved seemed actually concerned about preventing future assaults or changing Greek culture.

At press time, the Sigma Phi Epsilon national chapter had not responded to multiple follow-up requests for comment.

“They didn’t want a fair proceeding, they just wanted it to go away,” the former brother said. “They didn’t care about the girl or the sexual assault, they cared about their image as a national fraternity. After a month or so of meetings, we were kicked off campus for what our national fraternity called a ‘third drinking violation’ because, this is my interpretation, they didn’t want a sexual assault on their record.”

He said his fraternity wanted to change and had developed steps to do so, but that it never received any support or training.

“I realized the national chapters are businesses, they are money making entities, and fraternities are their assets,” he said. “As soon as soon as you have something happen like a sexual assault, you become a bad asset, and they hang you out to dry. And this is where the frustration came in because they just shut [attempts by the brothers to address the problem] down, did not work with us, did not listen to us.”

But this fall, something changed — students in Greek life asserted themselves into the discussion of sexual assault and accountability by organizing around an assault survivor in a clear display of resistance: They boycotted the the alleged rapist’s brotherhood, Theta Xi. Greek organizations cancelled events hosted by Theta Xi and disinvited them from others. They held meetings asking Theta Xi to prove they would make changes within their fraternity, all without any university or national chapter presence. They constructed a makeshift, unofficial justice system manned mostly by 18-to-22 year-olds in response to formal letters released by the survivor, Kelsey Pitman.

Kelsey Pitman, a fourth-year bio-psychology major, had been working hard to organize the fall 2016 recruitment of new members to her sorority, Alpha Chi Omega (AXO). She was the newly-elected president and was passionate about her sisterhood. She loved being surrounded by a group of women who shared her values and supported each other, and she had run for president on the platform of improving AXO’s average grade point average, among other initiatives.

It was the beginning of Fall Quarter, Welcome Week and recruitment for Greek Life. During this week, all sororities require members to be “dry,” meaning that, beyond the normal prohibition of alcohol in official sorority houses, none of the sisters could drink or go to parties. According to the sorority sisters interviewed for this article, national sorority chapters have this policy in order to keep potential new members from forming opinions about sororities at parties before they are recruited.

However, the potential new members form their opinions anyway. While older sisters stay dry, fraternities throw huge Welcome Week parties and invite the young women who are going through recruitment. The topic of conversation is usually recruitment, and in the absence of the older sorority sisters, the boys offer their opinions of each sorority.

I remember being swayed so much by guys at those parties,” Pitman said. “They would tell me which houses they saw me in for this or that reason. If we [older sorority sisters] can’t be there, then we can’t give the potential new members our opinions about our organization, but fraternity boys can.”

On the last night before dry week, Pitman’s sorority had a exchange (a term referring to an exclusive, preorganized party at a fraternity house) just down the street from their house, at Theta Xi.

“I was like, yeah it’s my senior year, I’m the freaking president this is so cool,” Pitman said. “So I really went hard with the drinking that night.”

Pitman took shots with her friends downtown and then went to the party at Theta Xi. Shortly thereafter, she blacked out and lost most of her memory of what happened that night.

Through small flashes of memory and from what her friends told her, Pitman pieced together that a Theta Xi brother who Pitman was acquainted with had offered to walk her home from a bar in downtown Davis. Instead, he had walked her to his own apartment, which was significantly further than Pitman’s place, and raped her. She had called her friends sobbing, and they came to get her in a cab.

It is worth mentioning that exchanges technically don’t happen in most sororities.

“Exchanges are off the books for sororities,” said Madeline Olea, a fourth-year biological psychology major, Pitman’s “little sister” at AXO. “We don’t tell our national chapters that we go to exchanges because they have rules regarding boys and alcohol. But they know exchanges happen, of course.”

Olea explained that if an assault were reported to the national chapter in connection with an exchange, the entire sorority could face consequences.

Exchanges, however, are a big part of Greek life.

“They are a huge part of Greek relations […] how your sorority or fraternity is perceived in the Greek community,” said Jacob Siegler, a fourth-year international agricultural development major at UC Davis who was a brother of the Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity from 2013 to 2015. “If the exchange is with one of the most popular sororities, you want them to have a good time so that other top sororities will like you. If you hook up with a girl at the end of an exchange, that’s considered a good night. A lot of Greek relations are measured by this. If a sorority likes your fraternity it’s almost tangibly measured by how many of them want to hook up with how many of you.”

Pitman said she awoke the next morning at the AXO house, hungover, exhausted and overwhelmed with a full day of pre-recruitment duties ahead of her.

“I didn’t know what I wanted to do at that point, I was really just wishing it hadn’t happened because I was so busy,” Pitman said.

Pitman was unsure whether to report the assault, fearing process could re-traumatize her.

“I just wanted to get a rape kit done, so at least I’d have some evidence in case I ever did want to report,” Pitman said. “I just thought the reporting process was so strung out and long.”

Pitman also knew reporting could risk her national chapter finding out about an exchange that technically shouldn’t have happened. She worried about the reaction from the Greek community.

If sexual assault survivors in the UC system choose to report, they have a three options: report to the school, the police, or both. Most survivors who do choose to report, which is slightly less than 10 percent, report to the school because it can conduct a faster, less traumatic investigation. The school cannot send a rapist to jail, but they can expel or suspend one.

Last year at UC Davis, there were 110 reported cases of sexual violence according to the Summary of Sexual Violence Reports from Title IX. 86 of those cases were closed due to insufficient information for an investigation by the Title IX Office. 10 cases resulted in suspension, and five in dismissal or termination.

“A lot of people in Greek life just don’t report, because they don’t want their fraternity or sorority to have a bad reputation, or they don’t want to cause any huge downfall of an organization,” Pitman said. “Then there’s this whole gender dynamic where sorority girls are supposed to be fun and lighthearted. No one wants to crack down on the seriousness of what is going on at exchanges.”

As AXO president, Pitman served as an informal record keeper for unreported assaults by encouraging her sisters to be open with her. Because of this, she “learned about a lot more girls feeling uncomfortable at exchanges or assaulted or [even] drugged.”

Before her assault, Pitman had contacted Theta Xi’s president at the time, Joseph Williams, about multiple previous unreported assaults involving members of Theta Xi that she’d heard about from within her sorority. She said her sisters “didn’t want to report it but I wanted to let Theta Xi know that it wasn’t okay.” Pitman said Williams was receptive to the message.

A few weeks after her assault, Pitman got a text from one of her close friends in AXO. Her rapist had been acting threateningly toward her friend at an exchange.

“He was pressuring her to stay later at the party than she wanted to, and he took her phone, tried to cancel her Uber, and was just being really out of line and pushy,” Pitman said. “And that kind of clicked. If my friends are going to be affected by this guy as well, I need to do something. So I decided to start reporting with the school.”

On Oct. 17, 2016, Pitman filed a report with Title IX.

After reporting to the school, Pitman wrote a letter to her sorority to dispel rumors and be transparent about her mental state.

“I was raped by a member of Theta Xi,” the letter read. “This was not and cannot possibly be the only instance of this occurring by the members of Theta Xi, and for those reasons, I have decided that we will be cutting off all ties to Theta Xi as a whole.”

The letter was leaked to the Panhellenic Council, a panel of delegates from each member UC Davis sorority, and it soon sparked a Greek-wide boycott of all events involving Theta Xi.

“We get a bad feeling from Theta Xi. It’s different from other fraternities,” said a Panhellenic sister who wished to remain anonymous. “Once I went to an exchange there and felt almost blacked out drunk from one glass of wine. That doesn’t happen to me normally. All frats have misogynistic ideologies but Theta Xi acts on it more.”

Mimi Pinna, a third-year international relations major and a member of the Pi Beta Phi sorority, didn’t realize why her sorority’s events with Theta Xi were canceled until she spoke with a brother from the fraternity.

“It breaks my heart that this assault happened, but I don’t think Theta Xi is different from other frats,” Pinna said. “Assaults have happened at every frat, and I bet every fraternity would react the same way if they were in Theta Xi’s situation. They all need to work on their culture.”

Siegler said that this cultural entrenchment extends beyond just fraternity life.

“It’s important to realize that the culture of hypermasculinity you see in some fraternities is not unique to just fraternities,” Siegler said.

Olea said the boycott was unusual, and that it was mostly Pitman’s letter that changed the way members of the Greek community responded.

“The letter made the assault more serious,” Olea said. “It also got rid of the shame, and it made it so that people knew it was okay to talk about.”

Theta Xi released a statement in response to the boycott.

We understand Panhellenic’s decision to pause involvement with our chapter while the prolonged school investigation takes place,” read a private Facebook message to the authors of this article. “If we or any other investigative body were to find evidence of a member’s guilt, we would take as many actions as possible to ensure justice for the victim… That being said, the prevalence of sexual misconduct is an important society-wide concern that absolutely deserves more attention.”

Pitman wrote in her letter that she still considers Theta Xi a risk to the Greek community.

“I refuse to subject any of my sisters, especially new members, to this type of danger,” Pitman wrote.

The Greek community echoed Pitman’s concerns by joining AXO in the boycott, but the university has taken little action to address the situation. The Interfraternity Council, the body that governs and oversees 20 social fraternities on campus, including Theta Xi, also sanctioned the fraternity.

At the time of Pitman’s letter, two separate but concurrent investigations began: an official investigation by the university’s Title IX office into Pitman’s report and an unofficial investigation by the Greek system.

The three major players in a sexual assault investigation are Student Judicial Affairs, Title IX and Student Housing. The basic outline of the process as described by Donald Dudley; Wendi Delmendo, the chief Title IX investigator and Courtney Robinson, the assistant director of Policy and Conduct at Student Housing, is this: a victim reports to SJA or Title IX. Either way, Title IX begins an investigation by conducting interviews of witnesses and gathering any facts they can. Student Housing is notified by the Title IX office and brought in on the investigation if there is reason to believe that a student organization is in violation of university policy. This last part has yet to happen during a sexual assault investigation.

In separate interviews, Delmendo, Dudley and Robinson all confirmed that there has never been a sexual assault case involving a fraternity, sports team or any student organization that has led to an investigation of the organization as a whole in connection with the assault over the span of their careers at UC Davis. The system has never found enough evidence in the investigation of an individual to suggest that their organization could be partially to blame for the assault.  

Dudley explained that it technically could happen, but the criteria to even begin investigating a student organization in connection with an assault, let alone to discipline one, are vague.

When asked what this criteria could be, Dudley said, “I am not sure what it would look like. Three criteria might be if the assault involved multiple members, if there was evidence of collusion before it happened, or afterwards to hide it.”

Pitman said that she has made continuous efforts to have the university investigate Theta Xi.

“I contacted Student Housing to see if what had happened to me with one of their brothers could affect their standings on campus as a fraternity,” Pitman said. “It was kind of weird, they told me they had heard of stuff happening there but they can’t do anything about it until someone reported. They were glad I told them but because the rape didn’t happen at Theta Xi’s house it might not hold anything in terms of them remaining as a campus organization.”

Although Student Housing seems to have had some idea of Theta Xi’s reputation within the Greek system, UC Davis does not keep records of how many reported assaults involve fraternities or sports teams.

“We record it in our notes, but we do not tally them up or track the numbers,” Delmendo said.

This issue is at the heart of a newly released petition from the Sexual Assault Awareness and Advocacy Committee (SAAAC) within ASUCD. SAAAC believes Title IX should keep track of organizations because, “The ideologies and norms within the organizations that perpetrators of sexual assault belong to very likely could have played a role, whether implicitly or explicitly, in influencing the assault.” The full petition can be found here.

Additionally, Delmendo explained that due to the way the system is set up, the events surrounding a sexual assault are often investigated and disciplined in isolation, through different campus administrative organizations. So, even if a detailed report was filed suggesting that a frat’s use of alcohol at a party led to a sexual assault, the report would be investigated separately as a sexual assault by Title IX and an alcohol infraction through SJA.

“If we found evidence in an investigation that there was behavior that would violate the student code of conduct, but maybe not the sexual violence policy, then I think we would address that through Student Judicial Affairs,” Delmendo said.

Student Housing was unable to open an investigation into Theta Xi in response to Pitman’s inquiry, but Title IX proceeded to investigate Pitman’s assault on an individual level.

Meanwhile, Panhellenic Council held two meetings with Theta Xi, assessing how the fraternity could change their culture to avoid future sexual assault.

“The meeting was extremely triggering,” said a Panhellenic sister who wished to remain anonymous. “It felt like they were viewing it as an alcohol problem rather than a cultural problem.”

At the meeting, Theta Xi proposed having five sober brothers rather than one to supervise parties.

“That’s not going to change how they recruit new members,” the sister said. “They have a fundamental misunderstanding of how sexual assault works.”

The sister also said she wishes the school would be more involved with their process.

“I want to demand that SJA investigates the group,” she said, “If the problem is coming from within the fraternity, how can they be responsible to solve it?”

According to this sister, UC Davis is not usually present at Panhellenic meetings in any capacity. During these two meetings, however, some of the Panhellenic sisters that were present were also involved with ASUCD.

“[At first] everyone was opening everything that was asked to Theta Xi with ‘first off thank you all so much for being here…’ or after their responses ‘okay great thank you for answering/clarifying’ like they were doing us the favor of coming in and giving this presentation when obviously it’s the other way around, however when the ASUCD representatives spoke there was much less of this,” the Panhellenic sister said. “It’s important to have an outside group who isn’t afraid of becoming really critical because they don’t care about how they will be perceived within the Greek community outside of that meeting. I think having ASUCD representation in the future would be really beneficial.”

On March 7, Panhellenic Council discussed Theta Xi and decided to remain disaffiliated with the chapter until the end of Fall Quarter 2017.

“The idea is to let Theta Xi try to implement the programs they have suggested, and in half-a-year they will be reevaluated,” the Panhellenic sister said.

Theta Xi said in a statement sent via Facebook message to the authors of this article that it is continuously working to eliminate sexual assault in its fraternity.

“While we strongly feel that there is already a culture of integrity in our fraternity, there is always more work to be done to lower the probability of any sort of misconduct,” the statement read. “We developed our many steps [to lower sexual misconduct] with input from the Panhellenic community. From improving the new member selection process to making much more detailed risk management plans, we are confident that we are now a leader in the fraternity community on this issue.”

Pinna reiterated that she didn’t believe any fraternity truly understands how its culture perpetuates sexual assault.

“I want all frat brothers to understand sexual assault on a fundamental level, and to understand the power that all men hold over all women, and I want it to make them physically ill,” Pinna said. “I don’t want them to deny it or get defensive, but to overcome their initial guilt and disgust and to get off their asses and be allies.”

Pinna believes the sexual assault trainings fraternities and sororities receive are insufficient; oftentimes they are just a powerpoint delivered by a sorority executive from Mississippi.

“I wish Panhellenic, instead of organizing meetings and trainings, had real women answer boys’ questions about what it’s like to be a woman,” Pinna said.

  On March 10, Dudley notified Pitman of the SJA’s final decision to suspend her rapist from the university for two and a half years — six months longer than the minimum disciplinary sanction that the university can warrant for sexual assault cases. Pitman appealed this decision, asking for an increased sanction and wondering what more her assaulter could have possibly done to deserve higher consequences, such as a longer suspension or expulsion.

During the appeal hearing, which took place via a video conference between Pitman, her advocate from the Center for Advocacy, Resources & Education, her assailant, Donald Dudley and others from SJA, Pitman tried expressing how much the rape had impacted her. In a May 3 letter to Pitman, Deborah Maddux, the appeal hearing officer, upheld the disciplinary sanctions imposed by the university against the assailant, referencing evidence provided by Dudley’s testimony at the hearing. In response to Pitman’s request for the dismissal of her assailant, Dudley explained that there are specific factors that would warrant expulsion, including “use of force; a deliberate attempt to make someone incapacitated; whether there are multiple acts of sexual violence that occur over an extended period of time; non-compliance with a no-contact directive; or, presence of a weapon.” Since the investigation did not find evidence of these factors in Pitman’s case, Dudley defended the initial discipline imposed by the university.  

“Donald Dudley said that he was basing the decision on previous cases, which kind of boggled my mind,” Pitman said. “I was appalled at how you could rank a person’s rape.”

As for Theta Xi, Pitman said that she is discouraged by Student Housing’s poor responsiveness and lack of support in coming up with a solution. She wishes the school would at least acknowledge that her assault was associated with Theta Xi, and she fears that there won’t be many more survivors willing to come forward in the future if they don’t act now.

I would encourage people in Greek life to still report because I was really surprised to find out that I was one of the first and only Greek life members to report an assault when I know it’s happened,” Pitman said. “It’s so important to really try to show the school it’s happening.”

Amidst the commotion in Davis, Theta Xi Nationals — the one organization with any official capacity to discipline the fraternity — remains in Louisiana and could not be reached for comment on this article.

 

Written by: Sophie McGuinness and Ruby Fisher-Smith

 

Sophie McGuinness can be reached at semcguinness@ucdavis.edu.

Ruby Fisher-Smith can be reached at rfishersmith@ucdavis.edu.

 

Editor’s notes/corrections (updated 5/31/17 at 9:15 a.m.)

The article contributed to issues with our website’s server yesterday, inhibiting readers from viewing the site and the story itself for hours.  

A previous version of this article was published yesterday that was not the final, edited version of the article. We apologize for the oversight. The updated version includes both grammatical and syntactical fixes.

The updated version of the article indicates the authors’ attempts to contact various subjects and institutions for various aspects of the article.

The previous version of this article noted that Theta Xi was the oldest fraternity at UC Davis. This is incorrect. Alpha Gamma Rho is the oldest fraternity on campus.

The previous version stated that Sigma Phi Epsilon was almost shut down for a sexual assault that occurred at its house. However, the fraternity was almost shut down at the time for an alleged sexual assault at its house.

The previous version of the article stated incorrectly that Sigma Phi Epsilon reached an agreement with campus officials that it could only remain on campus “if all but 10 brothers retired.” This is incorrect and the result of a misunderstanding of the audio recording from the source’s interview with the authors.

The previous version of this article indicated that the Sigma Phi Epsilon national chapter worked together with university officials to investigate the alleged assault and determine consequences for the chapter. This is incorrect. Both the national chapter and the university worked independently, according to the source.

The article has been updated to clarify that, according to the source, only the Sigma Phi Epsilon national chapter attempted to treat the alleged sexual assault case an an alcohol-related offense.

The article has been corrected to reflect that neither the university nor the Sigma Phi Epsilon national chapter actively sought to erase a record of alleged sexual assault by removing fraternity members from the UC Davis chapter.