Campus rape has gained attention nationwide in recent years. Binge drinking is a perennial problem. Frats in trouble are a frequent headline. Some information points to the three being knotted together in a snarl colleges are trying to untangle.
Penn State is dialing back fraternity and sorority activities in the coming months to battle problems the university deems to be out of control.
It comes after a young man died in February. But Vice President of Student Affairs Damon Sims pointed to other problems in his announcement last week, namely alcohol and sexual misconduct.
The university had already shuttered “social events” — events where alcohol is served — for the rest of the semester four days after Timothy Piazza, 19, died after a fall at Beta Theta Pi.
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That was followed up with a laundry list of changes last week, including a ban on recruiting or “rush” in the fall 2017 semester, strict limits on the number of people at parties and a dramatic cut in the number of those social events from a max of 45 down to 10 for the semester.
Sims pointed to troubling statistics. Greek system members are four times more likely to identify as heavy drinkers, he said. The girls are twice as likely to be raped as a girl who isn’t in a sorority. The guys? They are 62 percent more likely to commit sexual assault if they are a member of a fraternity.
Sims’ numbers were Penn State-specific, from the sexual misconduct climate survey the university released in April 2016. It noted things like 13.9 percent of female undergraduate students reported at least one act of intimate partner or dating violence, and of those, 77.9 said it was at the hand of a student and 97.8 said that perpetrator was male.
Victims said that alcohol was involved 77.2 percent of the time. Perpetrators put that number at 72.8 percent. But 83.4 percent of undergrads said there were drugs and/or alcohol present at the time.
The problems are not new, and not exclusive to Penn State. The numbers are actually a little better for Penn State than they could be. According to a 2009 study, sorority members nationwide are 74 percent more likely to be rape victims, a number that jumps to 300 percent if they live in a sorority house. A 2005 study and a 2007 study each put fraternity members at three times more likely to commit rape than fellow students who aren’t Greeks.
Lindsey Fausette, director of outreach and education for the Centre County Women’s Resource Center, said it isn’t that isn’t necessarily about the people as much as the atmosphere.
“It’s just that sometimes that culture creates situations where (rape) is more likely to occur,” she said.
That means people, alcohol and the idea that it’s not a big deal.
“It’s almost like a perfect storm,” Fausette said.
According to the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life, 17 percent of the student body participates in one of the 82 Greek organizations at Penn State. The fraternities and sororities participate in philanthropy, raising millions for pediatric cancer patients with the annual Penn State IFC/Panhellenic Dance Marathon. The 2017 event pulled in more than $10 million, and students not only raise money but devote time and energy to the sick kids and their families.
But every year, the week after Thon is a low point as the fraternity houses become home bases for the roving bands of green-clad binge drinkers celebrating State Patty’s Day. The annual student-created drinking holiday ends in higher police calls and a lot of visits to Mount Nittany Medical Center for dangerously high alcohol consumption.
Those are the kind of parties, like football tailgate weekends, where bad things happen, Fausette said.
“Those party weekends, we see influxes. It’s not all tied necessarily to Greek events but any time there’s large drinking events, we see more calls,” she said.
She is encouraged by the university’s efforts.
“It’s like any one of those things wouldn’t have seemed to make a huge impact but all together you could see it start to make a huge difference,” Fausette said. “If these things could be enforced, it could make a big change in that kind of party culture.”
She also indicated one thing the university started earlier that can also be key.
“Without people around you saying these things are not OK, the rules established in these houses or spaces, that’s what takes over,” Fausette said. “We need bystanders to say no, that’s not the reality. That’s why our focus is really looking at bystander intervention as the key for flipping that around. We need to make people feel comfortable speaking up.”
Penn State began emphasizing bystander intervention in 2015 after President Eric Barron accepted recommendations from his task force on sexual assault and harassment.
The university’s Greek community has not been happy about the announced changes, decrying their lack of participation in the decision. Although Sims said they had tried to include the organizations in a task force that was assembled before Piazza’s death. That task force came about after the last big scandal, involving Kappa Delta Rho, a secret Facebook page and detailing of hazing, drug and alcohol use and pictures of unclothed women. KDR was suspended for three years.
But the IFC was also tweeting about Sexual Assault Awareness Month events just two days before Sims’ announcement.
“The tide is kind of changing,” Fausette said. “A little and a little and a little bit more. Eventually, you will be able to see how it swept. I’m hopeful.”