The Alpha Phi sorority on Thursday became the first national sorority to break rank with the National Panhellenic Conference by saying it doesn't support a controversial campus sexual assault bill.
The statement, obtained by The Huffington Post, was issued by Alpha Phi's national office "at the request of many of our members and chapters." It explains that "Alpha Phi has not endorsed this legislation and has not committed to any financial support" and takes issue with several aspects of the Safe Campus Act.
The Safe Campus Act was proposed in Congress in late July following lobbying by NPC and several national fraternity groups. The legislation would block colleges from investigating sexual assault cases unless the alleged victim also reports to law enforcement, and in those cases, the school couldn't fully adjudicate until a criminal investigation concludes. No other form of misconduct would face this sort of requirement.
"We believe our sisters who are survivors should have choices in how, when and to whom they go to for support or to report the crime," Alpha Phi said in the statement. "They should have their own voice and the support and encouragement they need to move forward including reporting as they choose to."
Linda Kahangi, Alpha Phi's executive director, clarified to HuffPost that Alpha Phi would not say it outright "opposes" the bill, but rather that each individual chapter "should have their own voice."
"Many of our members -- both collegians and alumnae -- had expressed concern that NPC’s endorsement of these two bills implied that Alpha Phi had endorsed them. We wanted to clarify to them that we had not," Kahangi said.
Colleges are obligated under the federal gender equity law Title IX to respond to reports of sexual harassment and assault on campus. Currently, colleges are able to punish a student they believe to have committed sexual assault as a violation of the school's code of conduct -- regardless of whether police are investigating.
In 1902, Alpha Phi called the original meeting that brought several sororities together to form the NPC, and is one of the largest and oldest member organizations. It is the third-largest sorority in the country.
NPC did not immediately respond to request for comment.
Last month, the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity left the North American Interfraternity Conference, which, like the NPC, has lobbied heavily in favor of the Safe Campus Act. The fraternity cited "internal squabbling" and "counterproductive tactics" as the reasons for its departure. When asked whether Lambda Chi Alpha's decision had to do with lobbying in support of the controversial legislation, a spokesman said the organization opposes "all lobbying efforts."
Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), both former sorority members who have proposed their own legislation to reform the way colleges handle campus sexual assault, recently criticized the NPC for backing the Safe Campus Act. Both senators had planned to reach out to national sorority representatives to discuss the problems with the bill.
Gillibrand told HuffPost on Thursday she believes the Safe Campus Act would make colleges "less safe" and suspects more Greek organizations may follow Alpha Phi's lead.
"When sororities, fraternities and their members learn the negative consequences this proposal would have for student safety on campuses across the country, I think you will see more national organizations back away from it," Gillibrand said.
"I'm happy to see Alpha Phi become the first sorority not to support a bill that would weaken schools’ ability to adjudicate sexual assault on their campuses and undermine safety for survivors," McCaskill told HuffPost. "Last week I urged the national sorority and fraternity groups to drop their support for that legislation, and I’m hopeful this opposition sends a clear message that their sororities do not support it."
Read the entire statement from Alpha Phi below:
We are writing at the request of many of our members and chapters to clarify Alpha Phi’s position on the 2015 Safe Campus and Fair Campus Acts which have been endorsed by the National Panhellenic Conference. Alpha Phi has not endorsed this legislation and has not committed to any financial support.
We believe in our principle of Watchcare that provides for unconditional support of our sisters at all times, including those who are survivors of sexual assault. We accept any social consequences that may be implied by others as we stand beside our sisters and support them if they choose to report the crime.
We believe our sisters who are survivors should have choices in how, when and to whom they go to for support or to report the crime. They should have their own voice and the support and encouragement they need to move forward including reporting as they choose to.
We believe universities should remain accountable for the safety of their campuses, and should continue to raise the bar to ensure that they report and respond to crimes and keep students safe. Their ability to do so should not be diminished.
We believe that each of our chapters and our members should have their own voice and should work with their communities to fight sexual assault. Alpha Phi members are strong women and leaders who can and will make a difference.
We believe in our members. We believe in Alpha Phi.
The Alpha Phi International Executive Board and Executive Office Staff
This story has been updated to include more information from Linda Kahangi about Alpha Phi's position on the bill and comments from Sens. Gillibrand and McCaskill.