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Frats Are The Problem. Could They Also Be The Solution?

CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK
CREDIT: SHUTTERSTOCK

At the beginning of a recent training session for educators who want to learn more about Title IX — the federal gender equity law that’s become the main mechanism for putting pressure on colleges to reform their sexual assault policies — Patrick Gleason introduced himself to his fellow attendees as a staff member for a fraternity. There was an audible gasp in the room.

“People were surprised that I was there. For the rest of the weekend, people would seek me out and come up to me and say ‘Hey, so you’re from a fraternity?’ “ Gleason, who works as the director of compliance and housing for Tau Kappa Epsilon, told ThinkProgress. “It is my understanding that I was one of the first to attend.”

Amid a flood of bad press for fraternities’ role in college rape cases, as well as backlash to high-profile incidents of racism, Gleason fits into an emerging trend: Members of Greek organizations trying to figure out how they can be part of the solution.

Gleason, who’s also currently undergoing training at RAINN to serve as a volunteer for its online sexual assault hotline, said the other people who attended his Title IX session told him they hoped to see more fraternity staff getting involved. They might get their wish. Gleason has been public about his recent efforts on social media, and he said several other Greek organizations have already reached out him to ask about how their staff can take similar steps.

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“I think you’re going to see this as an increasing trend,” he said. “Other organizations are saying, we need to get on this because TKE is already there.”

Daniel Swinton, the associate executive director of the Association of Title IX Administrators, the organization that facilitated the session Gleason attended, said it’s not very common for national Greek organizations to send their employees to him. Most of the people who receive training about how sexual assault policies are supposed to function on campus are university staff who have been designated as Title IX coordinators — the people who are responsible for ensuring their school follows through with its responsibilities under the law.

But now that the campus sexual assault crisis has gotten enough attention to inspire a presidential task force, Swinton has noticed a recent uptick in interest among what he calls “high-risk” groups like frats. “I think we’re seeing an increased level of participation, and that’s most welcome,” he said. “We’re grateful to see more groups like fraternities and sororities.”

Scott Berkowitz, the founder and president of RAINN, told ThinkProgress that his organization has “definitely seen an increase in interest over the last year” from fraternities and sororities. More of them are signing up to host awareness events on their campuses, training to be hotline volunteers, raising money for RAINN, and requesting to bring a sexual assault prevention speaker to their school.

Since his job involves talking to TKE members about their conduct, Gleason addressed issues of sexual assault before he sought out Swinton’s and Berkowitz’s groups. But now, he says he feels better equipped to initiate the hard conversations with college students who may not be comfortable talking about rape — discussions that he says can have a “deeper impact” when they come from a male mentor.

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In light of his new training, he also wants to strengthen his fraternity’s code of conduct to have a “definitive statement on the expectations of our members and how they should be treating not just women, but people in general.”

For some sexual assault prevention advocates, it’s undoubtedly too little too late. As fraternities consistently make headlines for referring to women as “rapebait,” chanting that “no means anal,” and slipping roofies into college students’ drinks, some critics have argued that the Greek system should be dismantled altogether. After all, according to one study, frat brothers are statistically more likely to perpetrate sexual assault. After decades of fostering a culture that allows sexual violence and misogyny to thrive, some anti-rape advocates argue that fraternities can’t be saved.

Gleason obviously doesn’t agree with that assessment. Although he acknowledged there are some Greek members who make decisions that he’s “not necessarily proud of,” he believes fraternities can ultimately play a positive role in the fight against rape.

“I understand there’s a lot of attention paid to Greek organizations in relation to sexual assault and sexual misconduct,” Gleason said. “But the individuals in those organizations are also our campus leaders and the people with the greatest ability to change that campus culture. By having them be our champions, we have an incredible opportunity.”

Berkowitz agreed that he would like to see fraternity brothers taking a stand. “The most important thing is to be visible and show members this is an issue they’re taking seriously,” he said.

Along those lines, TKE was one of eight national fraternities that recently announced they’ll work together to develop training programs for their members about binge drinking and sexual misconduct, hoping to reach thousands of undergrads with consistent messaging about sexual assault prevention. TKE was also one of two frats that partnered with the White House to help launch “It’s On Us,” an anti-rape campaign that hopes to “change social norms” by encouraging college men to create an environment where sexual assault is not tolerated.

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Tracey Vitchers, who serves on the board of directors for Students Active for Ending Rape (SAFER), told ThinkProgress it’s been interesting to see “increased awareness from some fraternities that they can play a role in combating campus sexual assault.”

Vitchers’ group helps student activists push their college administrations to develop better sexual assault policies. She said that, over the past couple months, SAFER has received a few requests from frats — the first time that Greek organizations have ever reached out, as least for as long as she can remember. She wonders if the Hunting Ground, a recent documentary about the campus rape crisis that took a scathing look at fraternities, might be inspiring frats to try to get out in front of the story.

“Particularly now that there has been more of this public calling out of certain fraternities, I think we may start to see some more of this risk management around this issue coming out — more people within the national organization doing Title IX training or crisis prevention intervention,” she said. But she cautioned that it’s not enough for staff members to take these steps: “It only helps if it actually trickles down to the actual fraternities themselves on campus.”

Similarly, Daniel Swinton said that recent controversies within the Greek system might inspire members to seek out more information about Title IX. His training and certification programs are now focusing much of their attention on “prevention based issues,” helping college staffers develop effective programming related to bystander intervention and a culture of consent.

“On the heels of the situation at the University of Oklahoma, I think people are going to be more attuned to issues of civil rights — issues of harassment and discrimination in the broader sense. At least I hope they are,” Swinton said. “Any time there’s a really horrible and tough situation, we hope there’s some silver lining and it helps people to learn how to better deal with it and hopefully prevent it.”

Gleason isn’t the only one working on changing Greek culture from the inside. Fraternity brothers are increasingly giving presentations and holding discussion groups about meaningful consent. He said he’s glad to see other people engaging with this issue, and he’s proud of his work in this area.

“Men are taking a more active role in sexual assault prevention, and I think that’s really where a lot of it needs to start from,” Gleason said. “To be honest, ten years ago when I was in college, these things weren’t talked about.”