Many colleges and universities across the United States have fraternities and sororities on their campuses. Although students are at school to study and earn a diploma, the college experience also offers an opportunity to build social skills; Greek life is one place where students can do so, while also participating in community service and engagement in the community at large. Often, civic engagement is a substantial component of a fraternity or sorority's priorities. Additionally, sororities and fraternities offer lifelong relationships. As such, they can be very beneficial to the student experience at college.
Occasionally, however, these organizations (and their members) can come under scrutiny for potential violations of the code of conduct or student handbook at the college or university. When this occurs, there can be serious implications for involved students. It's important, if you or a loved one finds themselves in this situation, that you reach out to a seasoned defense attorney who understands how to best navigate the allegations.
Code of Conduct Rules and Greek Life
Each college and university in the United States has its own internal regulations that govern both disciplinary procedures and the rules that must be followed by students, faculty, and staff. At some schools, this may be called a Code of Conduct, other schools may call it a Student Conduct Policy, an Honor Code, or even just the Student Handbook. Regardless of the name, it's important that your organization be familiar with the regulations, both for individuals and for organizations affiliated with the university or college. If you are an officer of a college organization, even if you did not participate in the violation of the rule, your school may hold you responsible.
Collateral Consequences and Penalties
Similar to how each university or college has its own code of conduct or regulations, each school will also have its own penalties associated with specific violations. There is no singular penalty, however there are several that could occur if the school finds against your fraternity or sorority, or even against members within the organization. Here are some examples of possible sanctions that your organization could face:
- The school could suspend your chapter, both during the investigation and after.
- You could lose your housing, if it is on campus
- Your fraternity or sorority could lose any funding it currently receives through the college or university
Additionally, there are also possible penalties for individuals, depending on the allegations and their severity. Possible sanctions for individual students could include:
- Formal record of the findings of the hearing on your permanent academic record, which can impact applications to graduate school, future employment, and more
- Probation, suspension, or expulsion from the school. Depending on the length of the suspension, students may also lose financial aid status, creating a cascade of negative implications.
- Criminal charges: many private colleges work closely with local police, and most public colleges have police who are state employees. If there are possible relevant criminal charges, the case or situation may be referred to the authorities.
Potential Allegations That May Impact Fraternities and Sororities
There are numerous allegations that a university or college might accuse a fraternity, sorority, or other college organization of; it will depend on what behaviors and regulations are codified within your specific school's code of conduct. However, there are several that are more common than others, and we can take a look at some of them here. This overview is not exhaustive. Make sure to read through your school's regulations carefully to ascertain what may or may not impact your chapter.
Although each school (and, sometimes, state) may have its own determination of what constitutes hazing, there are some general outlines that we can look at here. Hazing may include behavior that appears coercive or as the cause of another student engaging in prohibited behavior so as to initiate, enroll, or admit the student to an organization. Practically speaking, this could include forcing or coercing a student to do something that is humiliating or embarrassing (such as streaking through a campus). It also could include coercion to consume large amounts of food or drink that puts the individual in danger. There are many other examples of what hazing could look like.
Underage Alcohol Consumption
College is a time to party and have fun. While it might not seem fair that you can be forced to join the military at 18, but can't drink alcohol until you're 21, that is the law. Fraternities or sororities that allegedly hold events where minors can consume alcohol most likely are in violation of code of conduct policies.
Unregistered Event with Alcohol Consumption
Many colleges and universities require student organizations to register any event where they will be serving alcohol and providing it to students. If you attend such a school and your fraternity or sorority fails to file the correct documents to register your event, you could be violating the policies at your college or university. Special dances or fundraisers might fall into this category.
When you are having a celebration, it can be easy to get carried away and, in the moment, not realize that your noise levels could be disrupting others who live around you. Often when campus security or police shut down sorority or fraternity parties, students are gathered up and charged in large groups. If a sorority or fraternity is hosting a party at one of their houses, then they will most likely be served with the noise violation.
Title IX and Sexual Misconduct Related to Fraternities and Sororities
Sexual assault or sexual misconduct charges are very serious and can have long-term consequences that linger for years. Depending on the school, sanctions could include suspension, expulsion, or even be added to a permanent academic record, which follows you if you ever apply for grad school of any kind. Although these sorts of allegations often involve an individual, sometimes a fraternity or sorority might be implicated in the investigation, for various reasons. It's important then, to understand several key components of how Title IX and college sexual misconduct allegation investigations.
What is Title IX?
If a university or college receives any money from the Federal Government, they must abide by Title IX guidelines, which were written to ensure that “No person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.” Recently, the Department of Education, under Betsy DeVos, updated Title IX guidelines for colleges. However, with the Biden administration taking office in January 2021, there is a conversation around whether or not the guidelines will change again.
It's important to understand though, that regardless of whether or not the guidelines may change, for now, schools are following DeVos' regulations. This means that some of the behavior that previously could have fallen under Title IX may, in fact, fall under a school's newly-crafted (as of August 2020) college sexual misconduct policy. For example, instances of sexual harassment or assault that occur off-campus do not fall under the updated Title IX regulations but may fall under new sexual misconduct guidelines at your individual school.
Accusations of college sexual misconduct that involve a fraternity, sorority, or any of its members, may take several forms. If a student files a complaint after an event, the school may have to investigate a fraternity or sorority to decide whether or not the organization created the circumstances within which the alleged misconduct took place. Each university or college will have its own guidelines that determine the burden of proof in these circumstances. Some may use “preponderance of the evidence,” where others may use something that is more certain. A “preponderance of the evidence” only requires a greater than 50% chance that the alleged incident took place.
What are Potential Consequences Sororities and Fraternities Might Face?
There are numerous portrayals in pop culture of sororities and fraternities, and unfortunately, they often show members of these organizations as frequent partiers and heavy drinkers. Members are also often portrayed while hazing or sexually harassing pledges or potential pledges. These excessive representations have led to an unfavorable (and unfair) stereotype.
Subsequently, in situations that involve Title IX investigations of individuals who belong to sororities or fraternities, or instances of sexual misconduct, the investigative board or disciplinary cohort may choose harsher penalties in an attempt to discourage further instances of the violation. It's important, then, to understand that the future of the chapter could be at stake, as well as the futures of the individuals who are facing allegations.
How Can I Protect Myself if My Organization Has Been Accused of College Conduct Violations?
If your fraternity or sorority is facing allegations of college conduct violations, there are several steps that you (and other members) can take to protect yourself while the investigation is underway at the college or university. Here are a few actions to consider taking. Although the list might seem small, the impact is significant.
- Do not talk with anybody at the school about the violations
Although you may be worried and you may want to discuss the situation with your friends, it's best to not talk about the investigations that are underway. If campus police or public safety inquire about a party at the fraternity or sorority house or another event that you attended, you do not have to answer their questions. It's important that you refuse to do so in a polite way, but do not speak with them. If friends or faculty who are not part of the organization want to discuss the matter—which could happen—do not do so, either. Your friends may be concerned and want to make sure you feel supported. If they do mention it, change the topic or decline the discussion. It might be hard, and you might feel bad about it, but during an investigation, your school could bring in your friends as witnesses, so it's best to keep them out of it.
- Review your school's procedures and policies in the student handbook, code of conduct, etc.
As stated before, each individual college or university will have its own standards and regulations that govern behavior expectations, the investigative process for violations, the disciplinary procedures, and even possible penalties or sanctions. Most schools now offer these on the school's website, rather than in a physical bound book. These codes are essentially a contract between the school and its students, faculty, and staff. The benefit of this is that you can pull up the document online and use Control-F or Command-F to search for the keywords that pertain to your college organization's specific situation.
There may be several pertinent documents, so make sure to open up new links in individual tabs, rather than in the same window. Exploring the procedures and process will help you and other chapter members understand the timeline for the investigation, as well as your rights and obligations.
- Consult an attorney-advisor
If your fraternity or sorority is facing violation charges, you want to make sure to research an attorney-advisor who can assist you in defending your chapter and its members. An attorney-advisor who specializes in working with college students and organizations will be able to provide expertise and can advise you on the best course of action to protect your student organization from potential consequences. They can also assist in protecting the rights of your sorority or fraternity's members.
- Take notes and document everything
It's important that if the alleged violation is tied to an incident that occurred or an event that your fraternity or sorority hosted, that you take notes as soon as possible of what took place. Do this while your memory is fresh and you can remember more details. It will make the later investigation easier. Write down timelines, if they are relevant, as well as lists of other individuals who may be able to provide witness statements or evidence that can help support your argument or defense. An experienced attorney-advisor will understand which details can harm your defense and which ones could aid in your defense. Clear assessment of these can help the attorney-advisor prepare, rather than have to face unexpected or surprise information during the hearings.
All This is Great, but What about a Specific Example?
We've looked at a significant amount of information so far. Let's run through a specific example of what one instance might look like. Hazing is one of the most common allegations as colleges and universities attempt to respond to the many student deaths across the country over the past few years.
What Should I Do if My College Organization is Accused of Hazing?
If your college organization has been accused of hazing, you should begin by finding an attorney-advisor who can navigate the college disciplinary system's complexity and procedures. You will want to find someone who understands the ramifications of hazing and how the Greek system works. You should also ensure that all members who were accused have an opportunity to speak with an attorney-advisor. It's important to understand that if you are an officer in your fraternity or sorority, you may be held responsible for the actions of your members, even if you did not partake in the hazing. If your organization has been accused of hazing, you'll also want to become familiar with the section from your student handbook or code of conduct that details what hazing includes, what the potential consequences are, and what the disciplinary procedure looks like at your college or university.
What are the Potential Consequences if My Fraternity or Sorority is Accused of Hazing?
If your fraternity or sorority is accused of hazing, the potential consequences will depend on several factors, including your school's code of conduct or regulations and state laws. For example, in Tennessee, the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, recently suspended the Pi Chapter of Kappa Alpha for four years due to repeated hazing and alcohol violations. In Louisiana, the Max Gruver Act made hazing a felony, so a violation there could have more severe penalties.
- Individual consequences and penalties
Individual consequences and penalties for hazing will depend on your particular school's regulations. However, most colleges and universities have sanctions that increase in severity as offenses occur. If you are held personally responsible or charged with individual violations, you could face suspension, probation, or even expulsion. Hazing can apply to a variety of actions, and so it's also possible that criminal charges may apply, depending on what the other actions are.
- Organizational consequences and penalties
As noted above in the example from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, your fraternity or sorority could be suspended as a result of engaging in hazing. If suspension does not occur, you could still lose your funding, or the organization could be placed on probation.
What Might Happen at a University Hearing?
As previously stated, every college and university has its own disciplinary procedures for fraternity and sorority disciplinary hearings. This is why it's critical to review your handbook and understand what the process is at your specific school. Let's run through some scenarios, though. Some universities have a student disciplinary review committee that begins with the initial investigation, while other colleges may have the investigation begin with the dean of student life. Still other schools may have an independent judicial council that addresses fraternity and sorority investigations.
The composition of these various committees and councils can vary. They may be composed of all faculty, all students, a mix of faculty and students, or even a mix that includes administrators. Depending on the severity of the alleged violation, a hearing might eventually go to the Board of Trustees. Often there are strict timelines to follow, from the initial notice of an investigation or hearing, to the hearing itself, to the appeal process. Some schools outline these procedures as bylaws, others as statutes, and still others as statements. Regardless of how they state them, however, the regulations around disciplinary proceedings for sorority and fraternity code of conduct violations are binding.
What about Potential Criminal Charges?
It is possible that depending on the charges your organization faces (or that individual members face) may also carry adjacent criminal charges. Some states, such as Pennsylvania, have passed laws that make hazing a misdemeanor, while others, such as Louisiana, have passed laws that make hazing a felony. Certain college sexual misconduct allegations also might carry criminal charges, such as rape or assault. Furthermore, if an aggravated or simple assault is one of the conduct violations, those also often have potential criminal charges. It's important that you are aware of what the legislation is in your university or college's specific state, as that will dictate whether or not there are potential criminal charges that you or your sorority or fraternity may be facing (although it's uncommon for organizations to be held liable).
How Can an Attorney-Advisor Help?
A diligent and seasoned attorney-advisor will understand the inner workings of how to navigate your school's disciplinary hearing and investigative process. You want the best possible expert to defend both your school organization and the members of your chapter. An attorney-advisor can assess the details of your case and plan out a strategy for how to achieve the best possible outcome, whether that is a reduced penalty or a dismissal of the allegations.
National Sorority and Fraternity Defense Attorney-Advisor
If your fraternity, sorority, or school organization is facing allegations of a student code of conduct violation, you want a highly-experienced attorney-advisor who can assist you during this challenging and possibly frightening time. You may be embarrassed by the severity of the allegations or possibly think that you can handle the school proceedings on your own. However, it's important that you and your organization find an attorney-advisor who can passionately fight on your behalf. The Lento Law Firm and Joseph D. Lento have years of experience working with college students to help them strive for the best possible outcome. Call today at 888.535.3686 or contact us online to see how we can assist with your organization's situation.