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USC students protest toxic Greek life after fraternity suspended for alleged drugging, sexual assault

·7 min read
LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 22: USC junior student Bianca Ventola attaches a sign to the Sigma Nu fraternity house near the USC campus. USC officials have placed the Sigma Nu fraternity chapter on interim suspension following allegations that women were drugged and sexually assaulted at the fraternity house. In a crime alert issued Thursday, the USC Department of Public Safety said campus officials received "a report of sexual assault" at the Sigma Nu fraternity house locate at 660 W. 28th St. "The university also has received reports of drugs being placed into drinks during a party at the same fraternity house, leading to possible drug-facilitated sexual assaults," according to the alert. USC on Friday, Oct. 22, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Al Seib / Los Angeles Times).
USC junior Bianca Ventola attaches a sign to the Sigma Nu fraternity house near the USC campus. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Faced with growing furor over reports of sexual assault and druggings at a USC fraternity chapter, President Carol Folt said late Friday that the university has suspended an individual in connection with some of the allegations and apologized for the pain roiling campus.

"Such behaviors are deeply disturbing, they hurt people and go against everything we stand for as a community," Folt said in a message to the campus community. "We are sorry for the pain and anguish this is causing."

Outrage over allegations involving the Sigma Nu chapter escalated Friday, as protesters demanded that USC take stronger action to address the reports. USC said Thursday that it placed Sigma Nu on interim suspension, blocking it from hosting or organizing any activities, a day after six students filed reports to the USC Department of Public Safety that they had been drugged at the fraternity house on Sept. 27. One student reported being drugged then sexually assaulted.

Angry notes and signs plaster the Sigma Nu frat house.
Angry notes and signs plaster the Sigma Nu frat house. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

Also Friday, the Los Angeles Police Department identified Sigma Nu President Ryan Schiffilea as a suspect in a sexual assault case, said Det. Meghan Aguilar, an LAPD spokesperson. Schiffilea has not been arrested or charged and was questioned by detectives earlier this week after a woman reported that she was sexually assaulted on Oct. 16, Aguilar said.

It is unclear whether Schiffilea is the student who Folt said was placed on interim suspension, as her letter did not identify that person. Neither Schiffilea nor several of his family members could be reached for comment.

Schiffilea's name was written in marker on the Sigma Nu fraternity house, where students gathered Friday to plaster the outside wall with protest signs and angry notes. Many questioned both fraternity culture and USC's actions to address the pervasive problem of campus sexual assault.

USC reported the allegations and chapter suspension to Sigma Nu's national headquarters. The national and USC chapter suspended the individual accused of sexual assault pending a complete investigation, according to an internal memo sent to parents of current fraternity members and alumni. The memo did not identify the suspended student.

Several students who joined the protest outside the fraternity house Friday said USC still had not done enough — expressing frustrations fueling similar rallies against campus sexual assault nationwide.

Shiwali Patel, who directs the Justice for Student Survivors initiative of the National Women's Law Center, said campus sexual assault survivors and their allies are speaking out in growing numbers because the crime appears as pervasive as ever and the climate to fight it is getting worse. Those who report sexual misconduct are facing growing retaliation for doing so and campuses are more hamstrung by Trump administration rules making it harder to prove the allegations, she said.

"We've seen more protests," Patel said. "Students are fed up and taking matters into their own hands in demanding schools respond better."

Two USC sophomores retape notes to the frat house
USC sophomores Claire Smerdon and Charlie Littleworth retape notes to the Sigma Nu house. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

At USC, calls to gather at the Sigma Nu fraternity house and write a note of protest traveled swiftly on social media beginning late Thursday afternoon. By Friday, the house was plastered with notes as some students stood silently surveying them and others sat on the lawn.

“You broke me,” someone had written on lined notebook paper.

“What if it was your sister?” another said.

“You are all complicit,” read a message in marker on the building’s glass doors.

Claire Smerdon, a sophomore, said she has heard about campus sexual assault since she was 6 years old and that people had downplayed the issue at USC, saying few cases have occurred in the last decade. "Well, clearly it's still a problem,” she said.

Simone Brown, 20, said an initial university email after the sexual assault allegation reminding women how they can stay safe seemed inappropriate. “You can still do all of those things and be as safe as possible and still be assaulted,” Brown said. “It's not a foolproof plan.”

“I understand that it's realistic to say like, ‘Hey, make sure you cover your drinks,'” Smerdon added, “but when the only rhetoric that's coming from the administration at USC is, ‘Here's how to not get raped,’ and they haven't put anything else out, it's incredibly impactful.”

Hannah Fondacaro, a USC sorority member and senior majoring in psychology and prelaw, said sororities and fraternities need to speak out more about the problem. There is still too much of a "hush hush" culture due to fear that it will tarnish the image of Greek organizations, she said.

Several students said USC's requirement for training on how to prevent sexual assault has not eradicated a "rape culture" on campus.

USC junior Paige Hewlett makes a sign
USC junior Paige Hewlett makes a sign to attach to the Sigma Nu frat house. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

National surveys have shown that one in four undergraduate women are sexually assaulted during their college years, although some believe those numbers are underreported. Fondacaro, for instance, said most of her friends know someone who has been sexually assaulted.

Judson Horras, president of the North American Interfraternity Conference, said the vast majority of fraternity members were “appalled” by campus sexual assault and had been the ones to report allegations of it at campuses including the University of Kansas and University of Iowa.

He said it would be unfair to blame all fraternities for the actions of a few and that Greek organizations have been shown to have a positive impact on students — one reason, he said, fraternities saw near record enrollment this fall. The conference represents about 250,000 members in 6,000 fraternity chapters on 550 campuses.

At USC, some fraternity members joined the protests. One of them, who declined to be named, said he was spurred to join protesters after learning about the allegations at the neighboring fraternity.

“They were 20 feet away and we didn’t know,” the student said. “When these happen, we can either choose to leave or we can choose to stay and do something about it.”

At his fraternity, he said they have offered extra hours of in-person training to combat sexual assault.

Angry notes plastered on the Sigma Nu fraternity house.
Angry notes are plastered on the Sigma Nu frat house. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

To Alyssa Delarosa, a 21-year-old senior who helped organize the Sigma Nu protest, no training or laws are going to eliminate sexual assault because it's a "systemic issue" that can only be solved by eliminating the Greek system. She added that the protest at Sigma Nu would reignite the effort to end Greek life on college campuses — including at USC, where an Instagram handle, @abolishgreekusc, is petitioning online for abolition.

“Now we have this sort of fuel, all of us activists and organizers are trying to keep alive,” Delarosa said. “We need to back USC into a corner that they can’t get out of.”

Malik Price, a senior, said he did not agree with abolishing the Greek system but joined the protest to make it clear that the allegations against Sigma Nu do not represent Greek life as a whole.

“It's times like this that it's like really, really important that like we come together and separate the system as it was, or as it is, from like the people who are part of that system,” Price said.

The USC Interfraternity Council said in a statement that it is "disturbed and angered" by the reports.

"We are deeply apologetic for the trauma caused and impact on victims," the organization said. "We are disgusted this violence took place in our community. There is no place for this abhorrent misconduct nor a culture that supports it in the Interfraternity Council community at the University of Southern California or anywhere."

Notes plaster the Sigma Nu fraternity house.
The Sigma Nu frat house is plastered with angry notes. (Al Seib/Los Angeles Times)

The student-led organization, which governs 15 chapters, said it will consider next steps to hold members accountable and has suspended all social activities in the meantime.

USC officials, meanwhile, have reported all known information to the Los Angeles Police Department, according to the campus crime alert issued Thursday.

Anyone who might have information related to the drug-assisted sexual assaults at the Sigma Nu fraternity house should call the USC Department of Public Safety at (213) 740-6000 for the University Park Campus, (323) 442-1000 for the Health Sciences Campus or (213) 485-6571 for the LAPD Southwest Division.

USC officials said they also encourage anyone who wishes to do so to report the incidents to the Office for Equity, Equal Opportunity and Title IX.

Times staff writer Gregory Yee contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.

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