An Occidental College fraternity has come under fire on campus--and been temporarily suspended by its national headquarters--for a newsletter that contains an adolescent-sounding poem describing the violent rape of a woman.
During the 45-day suspension, national officials from Alpha Tau Omega fraternity and Occidental administrators will jointly investigate the ATO chapter and decide whether to permanently revoke the group's charter at the college in Eagle Rock.
"It's very clear that this is not something we condone and not something we want to tolerate," said Cathy Kramer, Occidental's associate vice president for student life. "We are taking a look at whether this fraternity should exist on campus."
However, members of the fraternity said campus administrators are blowing the incident out of proportion in response to pressure from some groups of students.
Although they now say the poem was tasteless, the fraternity members argue that the writer was attempting to be funny--not malicious.
"I just really don't think it's that big of a deal," said senior Alex Lebrija, 21, president of the ATO chapter. "It was stupid. It was dumb . . . but I don't think it was harmful."
The single-page typed newsletter--which was distributed to the chapter's approximately 25 members last month--began with an announcement urging the fraternity brothers to invite their "buddies and slutties" to an upcoming bowling party.
The second half was devoted to a 12-line rhyming poem about "a girl in town named Sally Brown" who was forcibly sodomized by "Buffalo Pete," a character whose genitals were described in exaggerated language.
The poem was brought to the attention of the campus community by student Corin Swift, 20, who said she received a copy in her mailbox on Nov. 9 along with an anonymous note from a woman who was "offended by the misogyny of the language."
Swift, a member of the campus's Feminist Consciousness Coalition, made at least 50 photocopies of the letter, then sent them to administrators and professors, and passed them out to students on campus. She also took a copy to the campus newspaper, which reprinted the poem and ran an article on the newsletter.
"Some incidents like these get hushed up really quickly," Swift said. "I wanted to make sure everyone knew."
The distribution of the flyer sparked a heated debate, which was further fueled when a group of women anonymously published a single-page list of alleged sexual harassment incidents at Occidental. Copies of the list were left in every student mailbox.
The list included several allegations against ATO members, including an accusation that, just a week after the newsletter was published, members were heard singing an offensive song about mutilating women's genitals. Campus administrators are investigating several sexual harassment complaints filed in connection with the singing incident. Occidental officials said the other incidents were investigated and resulted in appropriate disciplinary action.
In a letter published in the school paper, the president and secretary of a campus sorority condemned the fraternity for trivializing violence against women.
"The disrespect and actual hatred illustrated in these newsletters . . . is treated as a joke--something the whole fraternity can laugh at," read the letter from Jennifer Dean and Catherine Hill of the Zeta Tau Zeta sorority. "However, it is not humorous; it is actually threatening, scary and sick."
Mary Kay Poljan, the college's director of student activities, said representatives of the national ATO organization will arrive on campus in January and will take a careful look at all aspects of the chapter before deciding whether it should continue to exist.
Among the questions that will be considered, Poljan said, are: "Is it one or two people that are putting out stuff like this? Can we turn this around? Can we actually teach the gentlemen of the house what's appropriate or what's not appropriate?"
This is not the first time an ATO newsletter has sparked protests at Occidental. Two years ago, offensive references to women in an ATO party announcement prompted a candlelight vigil outside the fraternity house.
Afterward, the fraternity members participated in an educational workshop on sexual harassment.
Some fraternity members believe that their 1st Amendment right to free speech is being sacrificed in the name of political correctness.
"The administration is trying to create a little utopia, and that's never going to happen no matter where you go," said Lebrija, a pre-med student.
Lebrija, who believes the newsletter was stolen by women with a grudge against the fraternity, said the flyer was supposed to be a private communication between fraternity members and was never intended for the wider student body.
"The people who stole the letter--they were the ones who were more harassing the community at Occidental than we are," he said. "They grabbed the thing and they mass-produced it."
Occidental is not the first local campus to be rocked with such a controversy.
A UCLA fraternity, Theta Xi was suspended from its national organization in the fall after a feminist magazine on campus published obscene lyrics from a Theta Xi songbook discovered in a Westwood apartment. Earlier in the year, the magazine had published verses from another fraternity's songbook, which celebrated violence and mutilation of women.