A slew of sexual violence and drugging allegations prompted officials at the University of Southern California to shut down all fraternity parties last fall. Now the parties are back on – but with new rules.
Security guards will be stationed on stairways and in public areas, risk and sexual violence prevention trainings will be mandatory for members and chapters will have to complete compliance reviews before and after all gatherings when they resume in March, according to details outlined in an action plan this week.
The new policies, put together by a fraternity-led committee that includes faculty, student government leaders and university officials, came about after more than a dozen students confidentially reported to the university that their drinks had been drugged or that they had been sexually assaulted. Six of the reports were linked to the Sigma Nu fraternity house, which pledged full cooperation with investigations in a statement issued last fall and suspended its chapter president.
Protests erupted in the following weeks as students and teachers demanded accountability, and school officials promised they would deliver.
But advocates are concerned the new policies will do little to change the underlying toxic culture that has persisted for decades. Some say the security solutions do more to placate parents’ perceptions than to solve core problems.
“There is a history with this university of not protecting its students when it comes to sexual assault,” says Natalia Parraz, a USC senior and president of a student-led intersectional feminism organization called USC flow, which led demonstrations. She sees the plan as a “quick fix to a very systemic problem” and voiced frustration that recommendations from her group, including community-led discussions, were absent from the plan.
Parraz is concerned that the university has prioritized PR over prevention. USC has relied on hired security observers to assuage safety concerns before, and fraternities are already required to have security guards on hand during events. Meanwhile, trainings about consent and sexual assault, though not mandatory, are already provided, and “obviously aren’t working”, she says.
Warnings about the risks of attending fraternity parties at USC have long been passed down through students. It became common knowledge never to leave a drink unattended and female party-goers often exercised the buddy-system to ensure they got home safely.
A third of female undergraduates at USC said they had been victims of sexual assault according to a survey done in 2019 by the Association of American Universities. That’s higher than the already astounding national average of one in four female students and 23% of transgender, genderqueer, or non-binary college students who have reportedly been sexually assaulted, according to statistics compiled by Rainn, an anti-sexual violence organization.
But the university has resisted shutting down its fraternities, which are a big part of the school’s social scene. Roughly 4,000 USC students are affiliated with Greek life and the organizations are also considered important for providing opportunities for philanthropy, leadership and postgraduate networking.
“The Greek community serves an important role in many of our students’ sense of belonging,” the Interfraternity Council working group wrote in a statement detailing the plan, adding that “it is clear that social environments within the IFC community require enhanced attention to safety planning and risk prevention”. The IFC, which serves as the governing board of fraternities at the university, did not respond to a request for comment. But in a previously issued statement the group expressed disgust for the “violence that took place in our community” and said it was “deeply apologetic for the trauma caused and impact on victims and the University of Southern California community as a whole”.
The university has placed four IFC fraternities on interim suspension and a fifth is still under investigation, but others will be able to resume social activities next month if they are found to be in compliance with the new rules.
Laura Palumbo, a spokesperson for the non-profit National Sexual Violence Resource Center, says that institutions must be committed to change the culture and not just the policies.
“Often with fraternities there is a focus on risk management and security concerns, and it’s equally important to be thinking about how to positively shape the environment to promote respect and healthy behaviors,” she says. “Longstanding fraternity or campus cultures that normalize and dismiss sexual abuse cannot be changed overnight.”
USC claims to be in it for the long haul.
“The recommendations made by the university’s IFC Culture, Prevention and Accountability Working Group are part of a preliminary action plan,” a university spokesperson said in a statement to the Guardian, noting that a report will be issued at the end of the semester. “The group’s focus now shifts to exploring long-term strategies for improving culture, enhancing accountability, and addressing systemic challenges within IFC chapters.”
Parraz, the student advocate, says she hopes their voices will be considered and included going forward. “We are trying to give advice on the preventative measures and they are not really listening,” she says. “The sad fact is that this conversation has happened every two to four years on campus.”