IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

In combating campus sexual assault, a new focus on fraternities

Thousands of fraternity brothers will soon get more education in preventing sexual assault.
Students sit in the fraternity quad at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill.
Students sit in the fraternity quad at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., May 29, 2014. Northwestern put two fraternities on probation last year, part of a trend as Greek groups nationwide have increasingly become the focus of college administrators' response to mounting pressure over sexual assaults, binge drinking and hazing.

On the heels of the White House’s new campaign to crack down on campus sexual assault, fraternities, college sports teams, and other groups typically thought of as potential perpetrators are joining efforts to address the problem.

And with research that suggests that men in fraternities are three times as likely to commit rape as other students, activists and students will have to enlist members of the Greek system to make real progress in combating campus assault. 

Eight fraternities have pledged to conduct a new training aimed at stopping sexual assault for all members. The International Fraternal Health & Safety Initiative, which is being organized by an insurance company that provides coverage to campus fraternities, has launched a program to educate members on issues of sexual misconduct, binge drinking, and hazing. The goal is to reach some 35,000 undergraduate students on more than 350 campuses.

Some fraternities are already stepping up. At Indiana University, 21 fraternities released statements condemning sexual assault and promising to root it out and participate in the school’s efforts to fight it. The school's flagship campus in Bloomington has already put a host of new policies and resources in place for this year. The school is also currently facing a Title IX investigation.

Fraternities and sports teams are  "two organized institutional subcultures on college campuses play an influential role, not just in their subculture, but in their larger influence on the campus as well,said Jackson Katz, co-founder of Mentors in Violence Prevention, an early pioneer in the the type of rape prevention programs highlighted by the White House's "It's On Us" program, told msnbc.

A comprehensive intervention approach, Katz said, would create an environment where men don’t fear social stigma for calling out abusive behavior of all kinds, not just stopping individual assaults.

"If individual men who are not themselves abusive don’t challenge the attitudes and beliefs that create a sexist culture where rape thrives, then their silence and failure to speak up helps to perpetuate the system that perpetuates rape," Katz told msnbc. "We can’t just talk about skills to stop an event in the short term.”

But some campuses are facing significant resistance from their fraternities to make major changes. And the early months of the new school year have already offered evidence of why fraternities need extra scrutiny.

A frat at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee was suspended and is under investigation after evidence surfaced that members had drugged women at a party, marking their hands with red letters to note they received spiked drinks. The same frat was investigated in the spring over sexual abuse allegations.

And at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, some fraternities have reacted badly to the school’s plan to make all houses co-ed by 2017. One fraternity there is so notoriously unsafe that it gained the nickname “the rape factory.” A recent campus survey found that nearly half the student population felt less safe in fraternity spaces. 

Both the NCAA and the Big Ten Conference are partners in the White House’s "It's On Us" initiative. But both those organizations have faced serious criticism for the way schools have handled sexual assault allegations. The University of Oregon found three basketball players guilty of sexual assault and removed them from campus, but one of those players had been suspended from a different school’s basketball team for sexual assault shortly before transferring to Oregon. And Lizzy Seeberg, a 19-year old student at St. Mary's College in Indiana, committed suicide in 2010 after seeing her sexual assault report against a University of Notre Dame football player come to nothing.

A survey conducted by Missouri Democrat Sen. Claire McCaskill’s office this summer found that 20% of schools give athletic departments oversight of sexual assault cases involving athletes. No other student groups or organizations hold that kind of power over sexual assault investigations.

This kind of resistance is why many advocates believe schools need to strengthen their disciplinary policies. If no one believes that campus sexual assault will be punished, they say, training fraternity members to prevent their brothers from attacking someone will only help so much.

“Students are taking [sexual assault]t seriously and doing what they can to prevent it, but if something happens, at the end of the day, what are administrations going to do to stop it?” Laura Dunn, founder of campus sexual assault advocacy group SurvJustice told msnbc in a recent interview.  “It’s not up to just students to prevent violence on campus. It’s a school’s and society’s responsibility too.”