On Feb. 3, 2016, Jason Brian Relopez, a former Utah State University student and Sigma Chi fraternity member, plead guilty to raping two female USU students. As the Deseret News reported, Relopez was also charged with aggravated kidnapping, but the charge was dropped before the trial.
Both women who were sexually assaulted by Relopez met him through the university’s Greek system. When a 19-year-old woman went to a party at Sigma Chi’s fraternity house in July, 2015, Relopez slapped her and subjected her to sexual abuse she couldn’t object to without putting herself at risk, the woman testified in a hearing. Another woman, 20, was kissing Relopez at her house in October, 2014 when he held her down and raped her.
Four months earlier, another USU student involved in Greek life plead guilty to forcible sexual abuse. Ryan Wray, former president of Pi Kappa Alpha, was designated to assist intoxicated women at a party at the fraternity house, according to the Deseret News, but when a drunk woman passed out at the party, she awoke to find Wray touching her.
This isn’t a Utah State University problem. While sexual assault is certainly a campus-wide issue, this isn’t a campus problem. This is a fraternity problem.
As Occidental College sociology professor Lisa Wade wrote for Time Magazine in May 2017, “Young rich men invented ‘social’ fraternities to isolate themselves from their middle-class peers, thumb their nose at the religious values of their professors and wrest control away from from the administrators who set their schedules, curricula and objectives. … At a time when militias were commonly called in to tamp down riots led by students armed with pistols and flame, the young rich men to whom fraternities appealed were nothing short of a menace.”
Wade takes the position that fraternities should be abolished altogether. In Wade’s view, “Reform is not possible because the old-line, historically white social fraternities have been synonymous with risk-taking and defiance from their very inception. They are a brotherhood born in mutiny and forged in the fire of the rebellion. These fraternities have drink, danger and debauchery in their blood — right alongside secrecy and self-protection.”
While USU didn’t take the extreme step of banning fraternities outright, it did ban Pi Kappa Alpha and Sigma Chi from recruiting new members for a year. A rather light consequence for two fraternities whose parties led to the rape of three students.
Looking for Solutions
In the wake of national criticism about the role Greek organizations play in facilitating sexual assault, some fraternities are making efforts to challenge the stigma and make Greek groups safe and accountable. Since 2013, the University of Utah’s Beta Theta Pi has been advocating for rape culture awareness and preventing sexual assault in party culture.
In March, 2015, the U’s Beta Theta Pi chapter received a Chapter Award for Distinction, an award given to only one chapter of any fraternity in North America.
When receiving the award, Beta chapter president Kevin Shields said “It’s all about the guys you recruit and the culture you create,” and “We have tried to be a positive influence. … I hope we become an example for other fraternities at the U.”
Part of Beta’s effort includes volunteering with Salt Lake City’s Rape Recovery Center. The chapter president said the fraternity’s message is “that fraternities can help sexual assault victims and hopefully can play a role to stop it.”
Is it Enough?
The U’s Beta chapter might have a promising reputation, but other Beta chapters aren’t so lucky.
On Feb. 3, 2017, 19-year-old Penn State University student Tim Piazza was hazed to death by his Beta Theta Pi brothers, who had Piazza drink 18 alcoholic drinks in an hour and a half, according to The New York Times.
A grand jury report found “the pledges lined up and finished an entire handle of vodka, struggling with the emotional manipulation knowing that the brothers expected the pledge at the end of the line would face responsibility for draining the bottle.” Then, the pledges were sent to four drinking stations, ending with “another pledge class beer shotgun before melding into the fraternity’s social, where beer and wine continued to flow freely throughout the night.”
As The Atlantic reported, his Beta brothers “waited nearly 12 hours before calling 911, relenting only when their pledge ‘looked f—ing dead.’ Tim underwent surgery shortly after arriving at Hershey [hospital], but it was too late. He died early the next morning.”
Piazza is not the only student who has been killed through involvement with a fraternity. In December, 2017, the grand jury report during the trial over Piazza’s death found “approximately 200 students have died in hazing incidents in colleges in the United States” since 1838. The grand jury concluded school administrators were to blame for “displaying a shocking apathy to the potential danger associated with doing nothing.”
Even with the U’s chapter leading the charge in addressing sexual assault and harmful practices, Beta Theta Pi, at the national level, has a long way to go concerning other issues.
Future of Fraternities
While fraternities and Greek life, in general, both offer a range of benefits, such as giving students a place in the larger university, as well as networking opportunities, the toxic elements of Greek party culture raises a question: Do fraternities serve a productive purpose?
In light of Piazza’s death, a handful of universities banned Greek organizations altogether — Penn State, Florida State University, University of Michigan, Texas State University, Ohio State University, Louisiana State University and Indiana University, according to U.S. News & World Report. Beyond hazing and sexual assault, other problems with Greek organizations are “illegal drug use and trafficking” and “racist and anti-Semitic posturing.”
The future of Greek life should rest in the hands of the fraternity and sorority members themselves. If Greeks want a place in the future of higher education, they should follow U Beta’s example and work diligently to rid their organizations of horrific behavior. In the meantime, school administrators should watch closely and be held accountable when they are negligent.