Hopkins puts Sigma Chi on probation over party

November 21, 2006|By Sumathi Reddy | Sumathi Reddy,Sun reporter

The Johns Hopkins University has placed Sigma Chi fraternity on social probation until January 2008, ending a comprehensive investigation into a "Halloween in the Hood" party that outraged members of the Black Student Union and led to a polarizing debate on campus race relations.

After a 3 1/2 -hour closed hearing last week, the Student Conduct Board hearing panel - composed of three students and two staff members - found the fraternity guilty of all charges filed against it by the administration. The charges include failure to supervise the conduct of the member who wrote the party invitation, resulting in harassment and intimidation.

As a result, the Sigma Chi chapter is effectively barred from holding parties and other social events and must recruit four adult advisers, two fraternity alumni and two nonalumni, according to a university statement.

The fraternity must also incorporate diversity training into its new-members program and hold four on-campus and four off-campus cultural events.

It was unclear yesterday whether the fraternity would appeal the findings.

While a report by the university's Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action concluded that the invitation to the party played on racial stereotypes, it nevertheless found that the skeleton pirate hanging from a rope noose was meant to represent the Pirates of the Caribbean movie and not to symbolize a lynching.

"The actual figure was in fact dressed in a pirate costume that had long curly hair, which appeared to look like dreadlocks in poor lighting," according to a summary of the office's findings. That report was used by the conduct board in its hearing.

The university places fraternities on social probation roughly every couple of years, said Dennis O'Shea, a Johns Hopkins spokesman.

The university did not disclose the result of disciplinary proceedings against the author of the controversial invitation to the party, citing federal privacy laws.

The student, Justin H. Park, the social chairman of the fraternity who was expelled from the national fraternity, said yesterday that he would have no comment until he consulted with his "legal defense team."

Park, an 18-year-old junior, posted the invitation to the Oct. 28 party on the Facebook Web site, touching off fury from the BSU.

The invitation described Baltimore as "the hiv pit" and encouraged attendees to wear "regional clothing from our locale" such as "bling bling ice ice, grills" and "hoochie hoops."

The university's Greek life coordinator directed Sigma Chi to remove the invitation from Facebook a day before the party, according to the summary of findings. But several hours after it was removed, a slightly different - but equally offensive - invitation remained online.

About 10 members of the BSU attended the party and took pictures of the skeleton pirate hanging from a rope noose, which they viewed as symbolic of a lynching, given the context of the party.

They reported the party to campus security, which shut down the event.

Students testifying before the conduct board expressed "shock, pain, frustration, confusion and anger," according to the findings of the university's equal opportunity office. But none of the activities at the party consisted of racial harassment, the report said.

Additionally, the findings described interactions between BSU members and several Sigma Chi members the next day as "angry" and "unproductive."

While the investigation and hearing were completed, university officials pledged yesterday to continue the efforts they have begun since the Halloween weekend party to promote racial healing. University administrators have held two campuswide forums and meetings with the BSU, and they issued a letter two weeks ago outlining a number of steps they are taking to improve the climate.

"Our efforts on the broader issues underscored by this incident cannot and will not cease," University President William R. Brody wrote in a letter e-mailed yesterday to Homewood students, faculty and staff. "They must, in fact, accelerate.

"In my view, the creation and preservation of a diverse, tolerant and welcoming community at Homewood and across the university must be a high priority for us all."

In the letter, Brody urged everyone to be considerate of one another, whether they are speaking face-to-face or posting an anonymous Internet comment.

Much of the polarizing debate on campus has occurred online, in forums on Facebook and the Daily Jolt.

Joseph James Chung, a 2005 Johns Hopkins graduate and a founder of the fraternity chapter in 2002, reacted positively to the university's actions.

"It sounds like a good chance to have cultural sensitivity and involve the Sigma Chi fraternity," said Chung, 24, who lives in San Francisco and flew out to Hopkins to meet with chapter members and university officials about the incident.

"I think that in the long run we can make good out of this and do what we believe in, which is obviously cultural sensitivity and inclusion," he added.

Marvin "Doc" Cheatham, president of the NAACP's Baltimore chapter, said the actions seemed encouraging, but that he would have liked to see more service aimed at the black community, which was targeted in the invitation.

"That's one thing that we suggested, for them to get a better understanding and more positive impression for the community that surrounded the school," he said. "Cultural events is one thing, but we wanted something specifically targeting African-Americans."

The NAACP has joined the BSU in demanding greater action from the university on a range of diversity issues, including hiring more black faculty members.

On Saturday a second "Rally Against Racism" was held on the Homewood campus. Tomorrow activists plan a private meeting with university officials.

"We welcome the opportunity to hear their recommendations and advise on the kinds of things we should be doing," said O'Shea.

sumathi.reddy@baltsun.com

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