Update 2:25 p.m.: Phi Kappa Psi fraternity released a statement Thursday saying the organization had voluntarily suspended its Fraternal Organization Agreement."This is a serious matter for the criminal justice system and the university investigative process and we will cooperate quickly, openly, and honestly in any forthcoming investigation that may be conducted," the statement read. Read the full statement here.
University President Teresa Sullivan Wednesday asked the Charlottesville Police Department to investigate an incident of sexual misconduct between a then-first-year student and several individuals at the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity house which allegedly occurred in September 2012. The incident was the subject of an article published online Wednesday morning by Rolling Stone Magazine — an article which also detailed numerous other assaults which allegedly took place at the University.
Testimony from now third-year University student Jackie detailed a violent gang rape at the hands of seven individuals at a Phi Kappa Psi fraternity party during her first semester on Grounds. It outlines her experiences dealing with the University following the incident, as well as the reactions of her peers and subsequent interactions she had with one of the men involved in her assault.
The article elicited a momentous response from the University community Wednesday — with some highly critical of the University's response to the accusations, others lambasting the Greek community for its apparent fostering of sexual misconduct, and still others criticizing the reporter for her methods and her portrayal of University life.
The Response Against Phi Kappa Psi
Phi Kappa Psi's national leadership released a statement Wednesday afternoon expressing concern over the allegations in the article and promising to investigate the matter seriously. The fraternity has launched an independent investigation “intended to determine the facts surrounding these allegations.”
“As distressing as these allegations are to us, we recognize that the personal stress and anxiety experienced by any survivor of an assault dwarfs our own,” the organization's press release said. “It is important to note that to our knowledge there have been no criminal investigations or charges of sexual assault brought against any member of the chapter.”
Charlottesville Police Capt. Gary Pleasants said an investigation is not underway at this time; however, the University has submitted a request for an investigation.
Title IX bars the University Inter-Fraternity Council from investigating or adjudicating any claim made about sexual assault under the IFC Judiciary Committee.
“Phi Psi has conducted their response primarily internally,” said Inter-Fraternity Council President Tommy Reid, a fourth-year College student. “We have continued, as we did way before the article was brought to our attention, to enforce bystander intervention programs and education initiatives to reduce the incidence of sexual misconduct.”
Third-year College student Sara Surface, external chair of the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition, said the Greek system needs improvement to better serve the University community as a whole.
“No one is trying to villainize the Greek system,” she said. “But we need to acknowledge the good and the bad things about a particular system. Can fraternities be a place for brotherhood? Yes. But can they also be spaces for sexual assault? Yes.”
Reid said the IFC has taken multiple initiatives against sexual assault under his administration involving chapter presidents, younger leaders in chapters, risk managers, vice presidents and fraternity members.
“I believe that gender norms contribute predominantly to acts of sexual violence,” Reid said. “Fraternities in some cases latently reinforce gender norms... However, I think fraternities are designed better than any other student organizations to act as vehicles for bystander intervention. Specifically, looking out for one another, and taking pride in how a community has the responsibility to ensure the safety of each one of its members.”
Reid said he admired the survivors who told their stories to Rolling Stone and hopes their testimony will effect change.
“The IFC recognizes a necessity to change the culture surrounding gender norms and power structure on Grounds,” he said. “The survivors … have done a lot for spreading that realization.”
A Debate of Accuracy
Surface, who in addition to her work for the Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition also works with the peer education group One Less, said she was troubled by calls she heard questioning the validity of Jackie's claims.
“It’s hard to know right now. I would say if [the article] gives survivors a place where they feel like, ‘Hey, the girls in the article shared their stories,’ that they will now be validated and believed. That’s a positive outcome,” she said. “That’s why I’m worried about the comments like, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘She’s lying.’ Rather than the administration discouraging reporting, it’s the student body that discourages reporting when they make comments that don’t support survivors.”
Surface said students questioning the accuracy of Jackie’s claims should keep in mind that only a small percentage of rape reports are false.
She said many survivors of sexual assault, like Jackie, never file a police report because of the re-victimization that often comes with doing so.
Fostering a Dialogue
Fourth-year Commerce student Brian Head, president of sexual assault prevention advocacy group One in Four, said despite the fact that the article was “emotionally provocative to a lot of people,” it was worthwhile in that it sparked meaningful conversation.
“The opposite of love is not hate, it is indifference,” Head said, quoting author and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel. “Even though the reactions to the article are all over the board, they give me hope that the community around us can change. … The fact that people are sharing this and talking about this shows me that they care, and that makes me hopeful.”
Head said that the criticisms of the University can prove beneficial.
“This is a scathing portrayal of our university,” Head said. “These reactions can be seen as the red, and they can be made a net positive. But we have to direct these conversations in a certain way.”
Surface said University students often have misunderstandings about the resources available to them, and this can lead to misconceptions and misunderstandings about the Sexual Misconduct Board and the University's sexual misconduct policies.
“For so long, conversations around activism have been largely dominated by members of One Less and One in Four, and it feels quite overwhelming now, knowing how many of these conversations [about the article] are happening and how many of them might be misinformed,” Surface said. “Knowing that our small scale prevention and education efforts so far might be undermined.”
Surface said that while greater attention should have been paid in the article to activism groups on Grounds, the piece provided an avenue for advocates to educate their peers about gaps in the discourse about rape and sexual assault. For that, she said, the article was valuable.
Surface said One Less and One in Four are working together to craft a response to show community support for survivors of sexual assault in wake of the article.
“Ultimately, we want survivors to be supported within the community and to feel like it’s a safe space to share their voice,” she said.
Surface said Jackie hopes other survivors will come forward in light of the article and seek appropriate resources.
The Reporter Herself
The author of the article, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, is a contributing editor at Rolling Stone. She said she chose to focus her investigative piece on the University because of its academic reputation.
“I was looking for a school that was elite, a school people look up to, but also where the culture felt representative of what’s going on around the country,” she said. “I wanted a school being investigated for Title IX, and on top of all that I needed people to be willing to talk with me about their experiences with sexual assault. U.Va. filled the bill on all fronts.”
Erdely said the stories she heard about the University were disturbing, but not worse than similar occurrences at other schools around the country. She began gathering interviews and documents during the summer and worked on the article for about five months. In that period of time, she visited Charlottesville, spoke with advocates and administrators and even ventured down Rugby Road.
“I hope people will see this not as an assault on fraternity culture — fraternities aren’t bad in themselves — but a lot of bad behavior towards women is tolerated,” she said.
Erdely said University administrators was “extremely unhelpful” as sources for her article.
“I think the administration is concerned about its image, and they were concerned about how the article was going to reflect on them, so instead of being transparent I think they made it far worse for themselves by stonewalling me,” she said.
In an email to the University community, Sullivan said the administration was restricted in what information it could provide due to federal and state privacy laws. In addition, she said, the University limited its response out of respect for survivors of sexual assault.
Erdely characterized University culture as extremely loyal — loyal “to a detrimental extreme”.
“These people who had the courage to speak out about aspects of the culture they don’t like are afraid," she said. "They’re afraid of retribution. They’re worried about getting backlash from the Greek system and backlash from their peers.”
She said Jackie faced particular hostility.
“Last year she had a bottle thrown at her, and she’s been chastised by her peers just for getting her story out,” she said. “This is in some ways one of the toughest stories I’ve done because I’ve never known interview subjects to be so afraid of the backlash they would get just for speaking out.”
Erdely said she hopes the article will promote increased reporting rates and awareness of sexual assault across college campuses in general.
Correction: An earlier version of this story indicated the Rolling Stone article asserted the seven men involved in the alleged rape were all brothers of Phi Kappa Psi fraternity. The article indicates at least one of the individuals was, that the rape occurred in the fraternity house, and that it may have been part of an initiation activity, but it does not identify each alleged perpetrator as a fraternity brother.