Office Of Equal Opportunity & Affirmative Action Programs Regarding Sigma Chi Fraternity’s 2006 Halloween Party And Related Allegations
On Oct. 29, 2006, the Johns Hopkins University (“JHU”) received campus security reports regarding a Halloween party hosted by Sigma Chi Fraternity, a recognized student group. The reports contained allegations that several black students of JHU were subjected to racial harassment and intimidation. Specifically, the students alleged that a Sigma Chi Fraternity member posted a racially offensive invitation on Facebook.com, that Sigma Chi hung a figure above their door from a noose made of rope that evoked images of African-American lynching, and that Sigma Chi partygoers were encouraged to and did wear racially offensive costumes, including that of a slave.
The Office of the Dean of Student Life received campus security reports concerning the party and the invitation. Additionally, several black students who had seen the invitation brought their concerns to that office. The associate dean of student life conducted an investigation into these concerns, and determined there were grounds to bring charges against Sigma Chi and one of its members, the student who had posted the invitation. Prior to the hearing, the charged student provided a copy of the charges to the News-Letter, the JHU student newspaper. The News-Letter listed the charges in the Nov. 19, 2006 edition of the paper.
There has also been extensive local media coverage of events related to the party and its aftermath. As reported in the media, there have been varying accounts of events related to the party, and community reaction to those events.
The Student Conduct Board is part of an undergraduate student conduct process created by the dean of student life to assist her in resolving cases of non-academic misconduct. The board comprises up to 20 students and four to 10 staff/faculty members who hear cases on a rotating basis in groups of five. These five-person hearing panels are composed of three students and two staff/faculty members.
On Nov. 16, 2006, the Student Conduct Board was convened and an extensive hearing was held regarding the Sigma Chi incident. The board heard testimony for approximately three hours and thirty minutes and deliberated for nearly four hours in private session. Since one of the charges before the board was an alleged violation of JHU’s Anti-Harassment Policy, the Office of Equal Opportunity and Affirmative Action Programs (“OEO”) was asked by the dean of the Kreiger School of Arts and Sciences to: consult with the Office of the Dean of Student Life during its pre-hearing investigation, act as an observer during the hearing, provide the board with guidance on interpreting facts relevant to the Anti-Harassment Policy charge, and issue this summary of findings.
The university is subject to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act ("FERPA"). Generally speaking, that law prohibits disclosure of personally identifiable information about students contained in education records, including disciplinary charges and the outcome of disciplinary proceedings. The law does not prohibit disclosure of charges or sanctions against student organizations, so long as individual students are not identified. This statement is limited to factual findings concerning events related to the Sigma Chi party.
2. The invitations did contain statements that invoked stereotypes of African-Americans, residents of Baltimore, and victims of HIV.
3. Robert Turning, JHU Greek life coordinator, became aware of the first posted invitation on Friday, Oct. 27, 2006, and directed Sigma Chi to remove the invitation from Facebook.com.
4. Sigma Chi did take actions that resulted in the first invitation’s removal from Facebook.com on Friday, Oct. 27, 2006.
5. Several hours after the removal of the first invitation, a Sigma Chi member reposted on Facebook.com a slightly altered version of the first invitation. The second version contained the same offensive language as the first.
6. Sigma Chi members, as part of their Halloween decorations, hung a figure from the popular movie entitled “Pirates of the Caribbean” in front of their house from a noose made of rope. 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.
7. Several black students either received the Facebook.com invitation by e-mail communication or received word of the invitations and viewed the invitations themselves. The black students who testified before the board described their reactions to the Facebook.com invitations, including shock, pain, frustration, confusion, and anger.
8. The pirate hanging from a noose in front of the Sigma Chi house exacerbated the impact of the invitations for the black students who testified, even though the testimony did not support allegations reported by the media that the noose was deliberately hung to invoke images of African-Americans being lynched.
9. Several members of Sigma Chi attended the Sunday Oct. 29, 2006, Black Student Union meeting. The end result of that interaction was an angry and unproductive exchange.
10. There was insufficient evidence to support race-based harassment inside the Sigma Chi House during the actual party.
11. Prior to the Student Conduct Board hearing, the JHU chapter of Sigma Chi Fraternity suspended several members of its executive board for actions or omissions related to the two invitations.
12. Sigma Chi failed to register its 2006 Halloween party in violation of a university policy that requires such registration.
The Student Conduct Board gave the testimony thoughtful, fair consideration, and rendered findings and sanctions consistent with the facts revealed in the hearing process. The Office of Equal Opportunity respects its findings and will now shift its focus to partnerships with other JHU offices to address the issues raised by the recent turmoil.
The preamble to the university’s Anti-Harassment Policy begins with the following affirmation:
The Johns Hopkins University is committed to providing its faculty, staff, and students the opportunity to pursue excellence in their academic and professional endeavors. This opportunity can exist only when each member of our community is assured an atmosphere of mutual respect. The free and open exchange of ideas is fundamental to the university's purpose. It is not the university's intent in promulgating this policy to inhibit free speech or the free communication of ideas by members of the academic community.This text reflects the tension that inevitably arises where two important rights (the right to free speech and the right to live, work, and learn harassment-free) operate in the same space. JHU values every member of its community and intends to continue to challenge individuals to make civility a personal standard while maintaining its commitment to different forms of expression.
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