Allegations of sexual assault have triggered massive, rowdy protests at frat houses on campuses across the country in recent weeks. Now, one of those fraternities is casting itself as the victim—demanding protection and calling on school administrators to declare it an “innocent party.”
The latest firestorm erupted at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst last Sunday, after someone posted on the anonymous app YikYak claiming that a student had been sexually assaulted at Theta Chi fraternity the night before. Approximately 300 people descended on the house, chanting “Fuck Theta Chi,” throwing bottles, and even flipping a car, according to video taken at the scene.
By Monday night, an estimated 500 people were camped outside of the fraternity. As of Thursday, more than 27,000 people had signed on to a petition calling for the school to suspend or disband the fraternity.
The protest drove the CEO of the national fraternity to write a letter to UMass Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy asking the school to provide security and to expel anyone found to have committed violence or property destruction against Theta Chi members. Claiming the fraternity brothers were being “tried in a public square by a violent mob,” CEO Michael Mayer called on school administrators to publicly declare that Theta Chi was an “innocent party” in the allegations.
“What is UMass doing to right the wrong that has been inflicted on Theta Chi students on campus?” Mayer wrote. “What is UMass doing to ensure that Theta Chi members, also your students, never have to endure the attacks from a violent student-mob again?”
Asked about the letter at a public forum Tuesday, Subbaswamy said he had not read it, but “[would] not be making a statement in support of the fraternity.”
“Unless they’ve been investigated, I’m not going to say there's nothing going on there, because we don’t know there’s nothing going on,” he told the approximately 500 students in attendance.
The situation seemed to confound university officials, who condemned sexual assault on campus in broad terms but said they could not act on the latest allegations because they had received no complaint from a survivor or witness. In a statement last week, Subbaswamy said the school “cannot take action against alleged perpetrators, whether they be individuals or organizations, without actionable evidence.”
The chancellor also said that anyone found to have participated in property destruction would be charged in accordance with the Student Code of Conduct. Two students have already been arrested and charged with disorderly conduct, inciting a riot, and failure to disperse from a riot, according to the Amherst Police Department.
In response to a request for comment, Theta Chi’s national headquarters sent The Daily Beast a copy of Mayer’s letter to Subbaswamy. The letter notes that “no one has made any substantive claim or report to the University” or the local police about the latest allegation, and claims members of the fraternity were forced to evacuate their house due to the protests. “There is no excuse for the destructive and alarming conduct of the students who organized and participated in the riots targeting Theta Chi,” it says.
But student organizers say the fraternity is missing the point. Anna Morel-Paletta, a sophomore at UMass who helped organize Tuesday’s open forum, said the protests were a response to what she called a “history” of violent events at Theta Chi. She has been working with other students to collect reports of violence at the frat house and says they have so far received 55.
“I think it’s so hypocritical,” Morel-Paletta said of the letter. “They’re the ones that should be called a violent mob in my opinion.”
“I think the fraternity is focusing on the wrong issue here, because they’re focused more on their property and not necessarily the allegations against them,” added Raaya Alim, president of the UMass chapter of the anti-sexual-assault group It’s On Us. “If they’re not going to address it, more people are going to suspect that there's more stuff going on behind closed doors.”
The protests came amid similar demonstrations outside fraternities at multiple college campuses, including the University of Kansas and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. In Nebraska, an estimated 1,000 people surrounded a fraternity house last month after an allegation of a sexual assault there, yelling the name of the accused and chanting, “Kick him out!” More than a thousand people swarmed the Kansas frat house earlier this month after a woman was allegedly drugged and raped. The protestors returned last week after the campus Public Safety Office received a second report of rape.
“Fraternity men are much more likely than non-fraternal men to engage in sexual assault,” one of the protest organizers told The Daily Beast at the time. “Rape culture is a huge part of Greek culture, it’s not something that has ever gone away.”