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O4S demand to end frat housing part of long-term debate on party spaces, sexual assault

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On  March 24, ABLLE canceled a party it was scheduled to co-host with Phi Psi, one of Swarthmore’s two fraternities. ABLLE, an affinity group for black and Latino men, decided to cancel the event in light of the activism on campus by Organizing for Survivors (O4S), a student group advocating for policy changes regarding issues of sexual assault. The cancellation is part of a larger discussion for an institutional change in attitude towards sexual assault.

Angel Padilla ’18, a SwatTeam manager and co-president of ABLLE, said the group canceled the party out of respect for O4S and its mission.

“The week we cancelled on Phi Psi was decided because we felt it was inappropriate to throw a party during a time where sexual assault was being addressed on this campus in a powerful way through the movement of O4S,” he wrote. “We felt it would be respectful to the movement and its members to cancel that week.”
However, President of Phi Psi Mark Hergenroeder ’19 pushed back against claims that sexual assault is a bigger problem at Phi Psi parties than it is in other contexts and locations on campus.

“Based on Swarthmore Public Safety survey data from the years 2016-2017, there is no evidence to support an increased rate of sexual assault in Phi Psi relative to the student body,” Hergenroeder said.

While the call to end housing for fraternities is only one part of O4S’ demands, the issue has yielded particularly contentious debate within the student body.

“Swarthmore must remove students living in the fraternities immediately and relocate them to regular campus housing. By the start of the 2018-2019 school year, the college must terminate its leases with Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon and rename and democratize the buildings they currently lease so that any student or student group can host events there,” O4S core members wrote in the demands, which were published in Voices. “Swarthmore must begin a thorough, formal, and transparent process of examining whether the existence of fraternity organizations on campus is aligned with Swarthmore’s professed values of inclusion and justice.”

Of the five fraternities that have existed in the college’s history, the two that continue to exist are Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon. As highlighted by Bobby Zipp ’18 in a January 2015 article titled “Alcohol-related hospitalizations, calls decrease,” the implementation of a stricter alcohol policy in August 2014 removed the ‘ ability to fund parties that served alcohol making it more difficult for clubs and organizations to hold parties. The policy reduced the number of parties at venues like Paces and Olde Club, making the fraternities more integral to social life at the college.

The process for getting a party permit in addition to the process for getting an alcohol permit previously prevented parties from happening in Paces and Olde Club simply because people were unfamiliar with the protocol, said Robby Jimenez ’19, executive board member of ENLACE. The alcohol policy makes the fraternities on campus structurally able to host parties more consistently.

“Paces and Olde Club weren’t very used because people didn’t know that they could reserve them to throw a party or how to throw a party,” Jimenez said. “It’s interconnected with the alcohol policy [from 2014] that made it harder to get alcohol for parties with a process that frats just know how to do.”

In an opinions article for the Phoenix from 2015, several students including Peter Amadeo ’15 expressed discontent with the concentration of parties at the fraternities and how queer and trans students felt uncomfortable in these spaces.

“Swarthmore brands itself as a liberal institution,” Amadeo said. “To an extent that’s fair, but in the end it’s a corporation and it’s there to make money.”

Feelings of discomfort and dissatisfaction with the control over party spaces by the frats have resurfaced due to demands made by Organizing for Survivors.

O4S’ demand to abolish frat housing surrounds a greater discussion about fraternities’ access to spaces and how members of minority groups on campus may feel less comfortable in these spaces. Dylan Clairmont ’21, a board member of Swarthmore Queer Union, believes that many queer students at the college did not go to the frat parties because they weren’t comfortable in the space.

“A vast majority of the queer people I know at Swat do not go to the frats, that’s not to say that there aren’t queer people who go to the frats and enjoy the frat parties,” Clairmont said. “I know that people don’t like the frats and don’t feel that it is a space where they can express themselves and have a good time.”

Tiffany Wang ’21, treasurer of Swarthmore Asian Organization, supported the notion that the frats can be uncomfortable for minority groups, but added that the frats’ control over party spaces was itself problematic.

“For me, it’s twofold. Not only do you have minorities not feeling safe because of how [the frats have] used [the space], but also the fact that only they can use it,” Wang said. “Those are two problems that are doubly exclusionary.”

According to Clairmont, the discomfort of minorities at frat parties is partnered with an unequal access to the party scene where fraternities have an unfair advantage.

“I definitely agree with the sentiment that it seems unfair that the frats are always allowed these spaces that [creates] an unfair power dynamic,” Clairmont said. “If they were to reserve the spaces like any other group on campus as opposed to a designated space already given to them, I think they would still be able to have parties but that power dynamic would shift.”

The transition of spaces like Kitao, Olde Club, and the WRC from fraternity houses to spaces for the general student population demonstrates how the democratization of the fraternities can benefit the student body as a whole, according to Wang.

“I really think that Olde Club and the WRC being frat houses in the past and what they are now open up the perspective of why the democratization of the space is important because they are prime examples of what can happen when that sort of space is open to everyone,” Wang said.

According to Hergenroeder, the high volume of students that consistently attend the frat parties indicates that many feel safe in the space. He stressed the importance of sexual assault training for fraternity members and said that criticism made by students who don’t attend the parties was vital to making the frat house spaces more inclusive.

Samuel Sheppard ’21, a SwatTeam member, said the notion that frats at Swarthmore were safer and more welcoming than those at other US schools was popular argument among students.

However, Jimenez, who transferred from University of Connecticut to Swarthmore last year, feels that  fraternities at Swarthmore are not much different from those at larger institutions except that fraternity parties at the college are usually open to the entire campus.

“I hear a lot of people say, ‘this is Swarthmore, it’s different…these aren’t real frats’ but they are,” Jimenez said. “They function in a lot of the same ways; they have frat housing, they have their dues, they have their party themes. I think the only drastic difference is that there’s no one at the door checking to see if you can come in or not.”

However, unlike most fraternities at other institutions, Swarthmore’s fraternities are largely non-residential. At most times, only one brother lives in the DU and Phi Psi houses.

Jimenez feels that the fraternities at Swarthmore are no less exclusive than fraternities at other colleges.

“It’s the same dynamic and hyper-masculine space that makes a lot of people uncomfortable and I think a lot of the people that try to push this narrative that nothing bad happens at frats are the people who don’t feel uncomfortable by the frats themselves,” Jimenez said. “If you speak to minorities like women or the queer community specifically, you will find that they don’t feel comfortable there.”

While demands by O4S resemble the response to the problems regarding party spaces as a result of the alcohol policy from 2014, Nathalie Baer-Chan ’19 wrote in an email to the Phoenix that the volume of parties held outside the frats has increased since that time. Her experience at the college her freshman year, she wrote, consisted of a social life that was centered around the fraternities. Beginning her sophomore year, she noticed the growing presence of alternative parties on campus.

“If you wanted to go out on a Saturday, [the fraternities] were the options you were looking at,” Baer-Chan wrote. “Independent parties started becoming more common and visible, not just from formal organizations like NuWave but also from individuals who decided that if their kind of party wasn’t on campus yet, they would throw it themselves.”

While some students have expressed discomfort at the fraternities, there have been efforts by the new Phi Psi leadership to make the fraternity space more inclusive.

According to Padilla, Phi Psi first reached out to ABLLE to ask if they would want to co-host a party.

“[Phi Psi] reached out to ABLLE in new efforts to increase inclusivity and better relations with affinity groups on campus,” Padilla wrote in an email to the Phoenix. “[ABLLE] recognized the new leadership in Phi Psi and their determination to do better as a frat and engage with other groups on campus while addressing the darker history of the frat.”

According to Sheppard, his experience as SwatTeam for Phi Psi parties, there has been communication and a willingness to help make sure the space is safe for all party attendees by Phi Psi.

“Whenever I SwatTeam Phi, they’re quite communicative. Every time I SwatTeam, a group chat gets set up with the SwatTeam members and the president [of Phi Psi] and we are told that the brothers are a resource and there to help make a safe space,” Sheppard said.

Sheppard understands the frustration at the fraternities but also sees an effort made by the fraternities to make the party culture more inclusive and sees that the shortcomings are due to a lack of resources for the fraternities to assist in creating a better space for students.

“I definitely feel as though the inclusive party culture at Swat is really good in that a lot of people have the option to enjoy it and no one really feels excluded from it in that way,” Sheppard said. “As a SwatTeam member I can understand why a lot of people are frustrated with the frats because they aren’t able to do much about creating a safe space. But it is very hard for them to do so because they aren’t given the resources to do that.”

While the fraternities have put forth an effort to create a safe and inclusive environment, students continue to feel discomforted by the spaces and frustration with the access to space that the fraternities have. The discussions about fraternity housing sparked by O4S have raised the issue of access to space on campus but has not necessarily rallied an anti-fraternity sentiment. This resembles the frat referendum from 2013, which did not pass, where there was also a lack of support for the eradication of frats.

O4S has decentralized their position on fraternities, stopped putting up anti-frat posters, and have made efforts to clarify their demands concerning fraternity housing. Although the debate continues, any immediate action regarding the frats seems unlikely as President Smith made no promises in her letter to the student body about Title IX. The frats have responded to criticism by attempting to create a more inclusive environment.

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