On Friday, the Hartford Courant reported that a former student at Wesleyan University had filed a Federal lawsuit against Beta Theta Pi Fraternity (the National organization), the Mu Epsilon Chapter (local chapter), the Raymond Duy Baird Memorial Association (owner of the house), and the University. The suit claims that the named parties failed to protect her from known dangers at the fraternity. The suit also charges Wesleyan with violating Title IX through their failure to protect her, and their actions following the assault.
The lawsuit also invokes the term “Rape Factory” to describe the Beta House. It makes the claim that the Beta house was known within the campus community by that name. As can be imagined, that phrase has drawn much of the attention by the media in this case, however in reading the lawsuit, it is not apparent where that term comes from.
A student blog at Wesleying.org has a very informed take on the lawsuit. (And thanks to one of the commenters on that blog, the full text of the lawsuit is available.) The Huffington Post also has a good post, that includes some new information that they have discovered.
Based on these articles, and several articles from The Wesleyan Argus student newspaper, the timeline of importance here seems to be:
In 2005, Wesleyan changed their policy to require all “program housing” to be co-ed. (Wesleyan requires that all students live on-campus, or in approved program housing, with very limited exceptions.) Two other fraternities agreed, and had females in residence, thus remaining part of program housing. Beta Theta Pi did not agree to this change, and the house was dropped from approved housing, and the University dropped recognition of the chapter.
In February of 2010, the Argus reports that the co-ed requirement was no longer in effect. The article indicates that Wesleyan and Beta Theta Pi were in discussion about renewing their relationship.
A March 2010 Argus article outlines an e-mail sent by the Dean of Students to all students and parents advising “students not to visit Beta, citing many cases of hospitalization for alcohol consumption that have reportedly occurred at the fraternity, as well as the administration’s inability to monitor activities there for the past five years since its University recognition was withdrawn.” Based on the article, the main sticking point in getting an agreement for program housing for Beta was related to access to the house by the University’s public safety officers.
According to the lawsuit, the Plaintiff, “Jane Doe,” was sexually assaulted in a locked room at the chapter house at a Halloween party on October 30/31, 2010. The Argus reported in April of this year that the assailant had plead guilty to charges of assault and unlawful restraint. He was not a student at Wesleyan, and was attending the party as a guest of a member of Beta Theta Pi.
Again from the Argus, in November, 2010, an e-mail from Wesleyan was sent to the community warning about visiting the Beta chapter house. It said, “we advise all Wesleyan students that they should avoid the residence because we cannot establish the safety of the premises.”
A February 2011 e-mail from the Vice President for Student Affairs announced a change in the University’s housing agreement that “would ban students from visiting or living in ‘houses or property owned, leased or operated by private societies that are not recognized by the University.'” The VPSA acknowledged that the policy changed was targeted at getting Beta to sign the agreement to become “program housing” and accept the terms regarding public safety access. A September 2011 article indicated that Beta had signed the agreement in May, and was back as a recognized “program house” as of Fall 2011.
The timeline covering the relationship between the chapter and University is important, as much of the lawsuit seems to define the connection for the University to a claim that the chapter house was “program housing” at the time of the incident. The newspaper articles appear to disagree with that assertion. However, the series of e-mails warning the community of dangers at the chapter house may play a key role in Wesleyan’s exposure in this case. While they did warn students in the Spring, they did not e-mail a warning to new students of their concerns in the fall until after the incident. The Plaintiff was a first-year student.
This case will be very interesting to watch going forward. In some ways it provides a counterpoint to the need to protect and warn the community when compared to the lessons being learned at Penn State. In this case, Wesleyan provided warnings (although it is not clear what was behind the first warning), but it did not warn the new students upon their arrival. It is this aspect of the case that has the potential to set a wide-reaching precedent within higher education, specifically as it relates to fraternities and sororities around the issues of hazing and sexual assault.