National fraternity organizations, reeling from repeated controversies over members' misbehavior, are considering pressing Congress to forbid colleges from punishing campus sex offenders until after a police investigation and criminal trial.
Members of the Fraternal Government Relations Coalition, a lobbying group that includes the National Panhellenic Conference and other national fraternity umbrella organizations, talked about escalating lobbying on Capitol Hill during a Feb. 2 conference call, according to a recording obtained by The Huffington Post. The group's members considered pushing to delay college investigations and to stop schools from punishing fraternities based on a single incident of sexual assault, hazing or other risky or offensive behavior.
This academic year, U.S. colleges and universities have investigated more than 100 complaints involving fraternities of hazing, sexual misconduct and date-rape drugging, according to a Huffington Post analysis of news reports. Bad fraternity house behavior has prompted some schools, like Penn State, to launch wholesale reviews of their campus Greek social systems.
Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education is investigating 101 colleges for their handling of sexual assault cases and a bipartisan group of senators led by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) is pushing for stricter rules on what colleges must do to address campus rape.
During last month's conference call, leaders of national Greek organizations said lobbying efforts will escalate this year. Buddy Cote, chairman of the North-American Interfraternity Conference, said colleges should defer punishment of a student accused of sexual assault "until the completion of the criminal investigation and any subsequent trial." Victim advocates noted that could take years and may not happen until after the victim and offender graduate, if at all.
Fraternity lobbyists also discussed plans to work toward stopping colleges from imposing campus moratoriums on Greek life, like those put in place at Clemson University and West Virginia University after fraternity pledges died at each school. Kevin O'Neill, executive director of the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee, or FratPAC, complained these sanctions were a "knee-jerk reaction" that punished innocent students' ability to freely associate.
Representatives from the fraternity organizations referred questions about the conference call to O'Neill, who wasn't available for comment. Those involved in the lobbying effort said specific plans haven't been finalized.
Fraternal Government Relations Coalition members planned to send more than 100 undergraduate fraternity and sorority members to Capitol Hill in late April to lobby on sexual assault and other issues. The national organizations have instructed the students involved not to speak with media.
O'Neill said on the Feb. 2 call that national leaders spoke with individual Greek organizations and concluded "the best position for the coalition to be in is to say that we should go back to the status quo" and allow colleges to pick the standard of proof they use in campus rape cases. The Education Department recommends schools use a standard called "preponderance of the evidence," which means more likely than not. The fraternity representatives suggested colleges be allowed to adopt a stricter standard, such as criminal courts' "beyond a reasonable doubt," that would require more evidence to determine that a student committed sexual assault.
The fraternity lobbyists said they planned to utilize an index of lawmakers who have relationships with Greek life organizations and members.
The lobbying effort was slammed by anti-assault advocates.
"This proposal is completely backwards," Gillibrand told The Huffington Post. "We should be making universities more accountable for providing a safe campus, not less. Waiting for long legal process to play itself out for those victims who pursue criminal charges while leaving potential serial rapists on campus in the interim would put public safety at risk."
McCaskill suggested fraternities' national leadership is out of step with undergraduate members. She told HuffPost that when she visited Missouri campuses last year to build support for her campus sexual assault bill, "I met with students involved in Greek life who were committed to ensuring that sexual assault had no place on their campuses, and that when these crimes did occur, their university had an important role to play in helping survivors seek justice."
Lisa Maatz, top lobbyist for the American Association of University Women, said the fraternity effort confuses campus civil rights proceedings with criminal investigations. "The campus proceedings are supposed to identify whether a student has violated the school's policies, not the law," she said.
The fraternity effort likely will face considerable pushback on Capitol Hill.
In the past month, police revealed Penn State's Kappa Delta Rho chapter was being investigated for circulating nude photos of unconscious women on a private Facebook page. North Carolina State University discovered the alleged pledge book for Pi Kappa Phi joked about rape and necrophilia. Sigma Alpha Epsilon, which had been trying to eliminate hazing to improve its image as the "deadliest frat," has launched a national review of racial intolerance after the University of Oklahoma chapter was caught joking about lynching black men.
Pete Smithhisler, North-American Interfraternity Conference president, noted that issues of hazing, racism, sexual assault and binge drinking are not exclusive to fraternities. "The vast majority of [fraternity members] are having those very positive fraternal experiences," he said.
Greek organizations have promised to improve members' behavior, launching task forces and commissions to make specific recommendations. Fraternities at Brown University and Dartmouth College have pledged to kick out any member found to have sexually assaulted someone.
The tally of more than 100 fraternity-related incidents of alleged hazing, sexual assault and date-rape drugging this academic year is likely understated, according to researcher John Foubert, president of the anti-rape advocacy group One In Four USA. Sexual violence in general is dramatically underreported, and Foubert's research has found fraternity members three times more likely than non-Greek students to commit sexual violence.
"Part of the problem is simply the structure of the fraternities themselves," said Foubert, a former Sigma Alpha Epsilon member. "You house 50 guys together without a real administrative presence, you're going to get to the lowest common denominator. Unless punishment is certain and severe, guys are going to do the things that they have in mind as what you can get away with in college."