College fraternities and sororities, concerned that students accused of sexual assault are treated unfairly, are pushing Congress to make it harder for universities to investigate rape allegations.
The groups' political arm plans to bring scores of students to Capitol Hill on April 29 to lobby for a requirement that the criminal justice system resolve cases before universities look into them or hand down punishments, according to an agenda reviewed by Bloomberg News.
"If people commit criminal acts, they should be prosecuted and they should go to jail,” said Michael Greenberg, leader of 241-chapter Sigma Chi, one of many fraternities participating in the legislative push.
The Fraternity & Sorority Political Action Committee, or "FratPAC,'' and two other groups will ask Congress to block colleges from suspending all fraternities on a campus because of a serious incident at a single house. In addition, the Greek representatives want a rule against "any mandate'' for chapters to go co-ed.
These Washington efforts come as colleges have shut fraternity chapters or required them to admit women after sex-assault allegations. Activists representing rape victims say that universities don't take complaints seriously. A new documentary, The Hunting Ground, singles out fraternities for creating an environment that enables assaults.
Yet there's a growing backlash from critics—including some Harvard and University of Pennsylvania law professors—who say university sexual-assault proceedings are stacked against the accused. The law professors urged the universities to adopt stronger protections for accused students facing campus tribunals.
The U.S. Education Department requires colleges to investigate complaints and discipline students found responsible for sexual assault. University disciplinary boards can take action, including suspensions or expulsions, far more quickly than courts and, unlike criminal proceedings, don't require a finding "beyond a reasonable doubt.'' To sanction a student, allegations must be found more likely than not to be true.
"Campus judicial proceedings'' should be deferred "until completion of criminal adjudication (investigation and trial),'' according to an e-mail sent to students selected to lobby for fraternities.
Joelle Stangler, the University of Minnesota student body president, said the fraternity groups' efforts are "extremely problematic.''
"Adjudication on campuses is incredibly important for victims and survivors, to make sure they receive some sort of justice,'' said Stangler, who has worked with a Minnesota advocacy group for sexual-assault victims.
Ten-year-old FratPAC, which has raised about $2.1 million in donations for congressional candidates, invites students every year to Capitol Hill to lobby for tax breaks for fraternity houses. In 2012, it fought against federal anti-hazing legislation.
Two other groups—the North-American Interfraternity Conference, which represents 74 national fraternities, and the National Panhellenic Conference, which represents 26 sororities—will join FratPAC's lobbying effort.
Fraternities and sororities are concerned about assailants going unpunished and victims lacking support services, as well as the rights of students facing a disciplinary process "that is not fair and transparent,'' said Washington lobbyist Kevin O'Neill, who is FratPAC's executive director, in a statement on behalf of the fraternity and sorority groups.
"Fraternities and sororities intend to be a leader in offering ideas for how Congress can provide a safe campus for all students,'' O'Neill said.
Along with activists, Greek groups will be taking on many college administrators, who say they need campus proceedings to keep potentially dangerous students off their campuses before criminal cases are resolved.
"Imagine a situation where a young women is sexually assaulted, and it has to go through the state judicial process,'' said Mark Koepsell, who heads the Association of Fraternity/Sorority Advisors, which represents faculty and administrators. "Meanwhile, the alleged perpetrator is walking around campus.''
The Washington-based Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, a trade group, will oppose the Greek group's agenda.
"The criminal justice system has been a virtual failure in its ability to address sexual assault,'' said Kevin Kruger, president of the group. "It's a really, really, really bad idea.''
Jennifer Waller, executive director of the Association for Student Conduct Administration, which represents the staff of sexual-assault hearings, said the goal of campus proceedings is to weigh whether a student violated university rules, not the law. The accused has a right to present a defense, she said.
Dozens of men have filed lawsuits claiming they have been unfairly treated in campus hearings. Fraternity groups also point to cases of what they call a rush to judgment against Greek houses. University of Virginia suspended activity at all houses after Rolling Stone magazine published a since-discredited article in November claiming fraternity members had gang-raped a student. On Monday, police in Charlottesville, UVA's home, said they found no evidence supporting the Rolling Stone account and were suspending their investigation.
Beginning April 27 in Washington, the fraternity groups will provide two days of training to the student lobbyists, who will then split into small groups for visits with lawmakers and their aides. Members of congress, including recipients of FratPAC donations, will speak at its April 29 dinner.
In her summary of the Greeks' positions, Jennifer Kilian, director of member services for the interfraternity conference, said the student lobbyists will also call for more data and education about sexual assault and new prevention programs.
"Students and alumni participating in the Greek Hill visits will be lobbying on the unified position fraternities and sororities have adapted [sic] on Title IX issues,'' Kilian said, referring to the federal law that bans discrimination on the basis of gender, in an e-mail to those selected to lobby.