In the early hours of Sept. 15, 2013, the MSU police responded to two different reports of sexual assaults at two different MSU fraternities.
At the Sigma Chi chapter, one victim reported partying with new acquaintances, which included consuming alcohol, and then being taken into a room and sexually assaulted by two males.
At the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity, otherwise known as Pike, the other victim latently reported a sexual assault and suspected drugging after partying on the previous Friday night with a male she knew.
MSU Dean of Students Matt Caires immediately placed both fraternities on suspension — they were not allowed to hold parties that served alcohol, tailgate parties, participate in homecoming events or intramurals.
On Dec. 9, Pike was fully reinstated as a fraternity after agreeing to four permanent disciplinary sanctions due to multiple violations of the university’s alcohol policy, student code of conduct and the fraternity/sorority risk management policy.
Sigma Chi was also fully reinstated on Dec. 20 after agreeing to the same four sanctions as Pike.
The sexual assault allegations are still under investigation by the Gallatin County Attorney’s Office after MSU Chief of Police Robert Putzke recommended pressing criminal charges against all the accused.
Dianne Letendre, the university’s Title IX officer, completed an investigation deciding whether the sexual assaults discriminated against the victims by interfering with their right to an education. That Title IX investigation is now in the ajudication phase.
A high-level of risk management must be maintained at all events, especially during the first four weeks of the fall semester. This risk management includes ensuring several members of the fraternity stay sober to protect guests being taken advantage of, sexually or otherwise, while at the chapter’s house.
A culture of assault
During the 2013 calendar year, MSU Police responded to seven alleged sexual assaults. Three of these were reported at MSU fraternities, including a Jan. 12, 2013 report of a woman partying at the Kappa Sigma fraternity and being sexually assaulted by a man.
On Jan. 13, 2014, a timely warning was issued about a girl who reported being grabbed by an unknown male in a Johnstone Center stairwell. The man said he was going to rape her; however, the girl managed to escape.
Clearly, sexual assault occurs at Montana State University.
In the Fall 2013 semester, the VOICE Center, reported receiving 72 calls from victims of both sexual assault and rape; not all of these calls were about recent assaults. The VOICE Center is an MSU service that provides 24-hour confidential support (406-994-7069) for victims of sexual assault, relationship violence and stalking in addition to providing primary prevention and education on sexual assault.
According to Hannah Stark, Direct Service Coordinator at the VOICE Center and senior in microbiology, sexual assault often is the result of a culture of violence, from “the language that we use, the jokes that we tell,” progressing on upwards to discrimination, objectification and then emotional, physical and sexual violence.
That sexual violence can drastically affect a student’s life, immediately and years later. The rates of post-traumatic stress disorder are highest among war veterans and sexual assault survivors. On average, a victim first mentions being assaulted five years after the event occured. “If … you’ve been carrying it around with you alone for five years, it can have a really, really intense impact on the way you operate within in the world,” said Alanna Sherstad, VOICE Center coordinator. “A lot of the times [the survivor’s] school suffers dramatically,” Stark said.
The MSU community responds
The alleged sexual assaults have also affected the general populace at MSU. Nathaniel Wilson, a member of the Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity who is involved in Men Stopping Rape and the VOICE Center, described two worlds of his life as having gone on a collision course. “There was so much backlash on Facebook about the fraternities at MSU being terrible places to go … It’s been kind of tough to navigate especially because all the fraternities are doing so much to improve the community,” Wilson said.
“The community is so against trusting us because one certain individual decided to join a fraternity, and they happened to make some really bad choices… It has a really negative impact on everyone,” said Quinn O’Dowd, an officer at Kappa Sigma. Other members of Fraternity and Sorority Life reported the same backlash although it appears not to have affected recruitment with most of the chapters at record membership.
The reported sexual assaults at Montana State and the rape charges at the University of Montana in the last couple years have generated a lot dialogue on the issue. This dialogue has led to the creation of a “Not In Our House Campaign”, which all the fraternities and sororities, athletic teams and numerous other student groups have joined in order to create practical plans to help prevent future incidents.
Also, as part of the Violence Against Women Act passed by Congress and signed by President Obama in March 2013, all colleges and universities are required to provide sexual assault training to incoming students. For MSU, that training will most likely appear in a form similar to the AlcoholEdu program which incoming students already complete.
According to the VOICE Center, the recent publicity on sexual assault has also created victim-blaming among students. “A lot of the times victim-blaming is a way for the person to kind of disconnect themselves,” Stark said. However, that attempt to protect oneself can really hurt others. “When people hear stories like this or hear people talking about putting blame back on the victim, it’s so much harder for somebody to come forward and get the help that they need,” said Sherstad. Already sexual assault is a severely underreported crime; approximately 80 percent of assaults are never reported to law enforcement, according to a study by the National Research Council.
Sigma Chi and Pike respond
For the fraternities where the sexual assaults were alleged to occur, Sigma Chi and Pike, the events have provided an opportunity to change how the fraternities function. “Times are changing; we need to change, and we need to make a safer campus — that’s the biggest goal,” said Jack Murray, President of the Pi Kappa Alpha chapter. According to Murray, the members of Pike, not the Dean of Students, brought up the sanctions. “It’s been kind of awesome that these organizations like Pike and Sigma Chi [have] been extremely interested in being a part of the [sexual assault] training and voluntarily coming forward,” Stark said.
“We’ve come together, Pike and Sigma Chi and the University, and we’ve agreed to shift their culture,” Caires said.
However, before the alleged assaults, Inter-Fraternity Council policy already mandated “no less than six members” to stay sober at chapter events, and while hard alcohol was allowed, it could only be served mixed, in a 1:3 ratio. “I’m not convinced that fraternities follow the fraternity policies,” Caires said, “We’re going to hold them accountable for the policies, but I think the agreement is much more powerful than the policies … They’ve agreed, so I’m going to trust them. If for some reason they violate that trust, we’ll remove them from campus.”
The hard alcohol ban
On 85 percent of college campuses, sexual assaults involve alcohol and a person the victim knows. However, according to the VOICE Center whether that alcohol is beer, wine or hard liquor does not necessarily matter. “We hear stories all the time of people who have been assaulted after a couple drinks, like beers or wine,” Sherstad said. Caires, on the other hand, views the hard alcohol ban as an important component of reducing assault at MSU: “In my experience, I have yet to see a college student come forward and say she was raped after drinking beer or drinking wine.”
“Alcohol is not a cause of rape; rapist’s are. That’s straight up what it is. Some people use alcohol as a disgusting tool to do it, but that is not the main cause, the main reason sexual assaults happen is because an individual decides they want to commit that assault,” said Wilson. However, while many students agree with Wilson, Karli Kessler, Vice-President of communications at Alpha Omicron Pi, affirmed fraternity and sorority life’s commitment to student safety. “If it’s going to make people feel more comfortable, than it’s a good idea,” said Kessler.
Ultimately, Caires admits a culture change is necessary: “Students have to get tough on this.” However, that road will not necessarily be short or smooth. “It’s a long process; it’s not easy to change culture overnight,” said Sherstad. Hopefully, with increased initiation from students, we will see that shift at MSU. Organizations like the “Not in Our House Campaign” are encouraging, and time will show the effectiveness.