Multiple fraternities suspended for COVID-19 infractions

An anonymous tip, submitted to UK on September 19, 2020, via the incident reporting form, alleges that Delta Sigma Phi held an over-capacity party. A copy of the tip was obtained by the Kentucky Kernel via an open records request.

Natalie Parks

Since the start of the pandemic, eight fraternities at the University of Kentucky have faced disciplinary action for violations of the university’s COVID-19 protocols.

Six fraternities are on disciplinary probation and two – Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Delta Sigma Phi – had their status as student organizations revoked.

Documents obtained by the Kentucky Kernel via multiple open records requests show that the restrictions were spurred by parties where social distancing was not enforced. Most of the fraternities received an additional citation for providing alcohol to minors.

Investigation reports written by the presidents of each fraternity state that the organizations were unsure of guidelines and that they did not intend to exceed capacity limits, despite some fraternities hosting multiple gatherings.

One fraternity, Kappa Alpha Order, was investigated for four parties, including some that occurred after the university administration told the fraternity to cease operations. Lexington police were called to two of Kappa Alpha’s gatherings in the fall of 2020.

Additionally, records show no or few safety guidelines implemented by the fraternities, who by their own admission took action only when gatherings got out of control.

Penalties for some of the fraternities will be lifted this school year, while others face five or more years of restrictions. Pi Kappa Alpha, Triangle, Kappa Alpha Order, Alpha Sigma Phi, Kappa Sigma and Phi Gamma Delta are all on probation for their COVID-19 and alcohol infractions, along with the two fraternities who have been revoked as student organizations.

Though there are over 50 fraternities and sororities at UK, these eight organizations represent a not insignificant portion of Greek life.

“It’s not a good thing that we are not going to have eight of our communities join us. I do think that there’s still a good group of students that will be a part of that community and will work with us in terms of making sure that we thrive,” said Dr. Trisha Clement-Montgomery, UK’s dean of students.

All of the suspended fraternities were part of the Interfraternity Council, one of four governing bodies of UK’s Greek organizations.

An additional three fraternities are suspended for reasons unrelated to COVID-19. However, Clement-Montgomery noted that the number of suspended organizations is not higher than previous years and is instead about average.

“I think it may feel a lot larger in terms of the number of violations, maybe because of COVID, so it’s a little bit more on display now than it has been in the past,” Clement-Montgomery said.

Additionally, UK only began reporting the disciplinary status of student organizations online a few years ago, so the information is more visible now.

As dean, Clement-Montgomery was a part of the committee that oversaw the conduct investigations into the suspended fraternities. She is also working with Fraternity and Sorority leadership to develop a curriculum for Greek life that will help the suspended fraternities return when their penalty is up.

Because some of the restrictions are for two or more years, all members of some suspended fraternities may graduate and leave no one to revive the chapter when its restrictions are removed. Clement-Montgomery is coordinating with the national headquarters of some organizations to make a plan for that eventuality.

“We’re already in the preparing and planning phase to make sure that these fraternities can come back,” Clement-Montgomery said.

Included in those plans is a new type of member orientation, since many of the infractions occurred during or because of rush week.

At least two fraternities violated COVID-19 protocols by holding unofficial rush events that exceeded capacity limits and alcohol guidelines.

UK recommended a capacity limit of 10 people for any social activities, according to a presentation about COVID-19 safety shown to Greek life organizations. The 10-person limit was also imposed by the Kentucky state government through an executive order, though the state’s order lowered the limit to eight people in December 2020.

The presentation also recommended that masks be required for any gathering and that students only attend gatherings to which they are specifically invited.

Additionally, the presentation suggested that hosts include an RSVP on any invitations so that they could plan accordingly and, in the case of a positive COVID-19 result, know who might have been exposed. Only one fraternity, Pi Kappa Alpha, reported that they told members to keep such a list for any gatherings.

Multiple fraternities said in their incident summaries that they did not take COVID-19 seriously until their organization was investigated.

“We realized that although COVID may not be personally affecting us at the moment, it is a huge problem that we should have been taking more seriously,” said the president of Triangle, whose name was redacted in conduct documents.

“The members involved now realize the severity of what could have happened on Saturday. They have all expressed regret,” wrote the president of Delta Sigma Phi of his fraternity’s gathering.

University administrators said they thought it was plausible for college students to be unaware of the severity of the pandemic when the violations occurred, primarily in September 2020. Hearings were held mostly in November, and conduct investigations and sentencing continued until March of the spring semester.

“As time went on, they have learned, but I don’t think that that’s something that’s just unique to our students,” Clement-Montgomery said. “I think a lot of us may have struggled in understanding what that [safety] meant and what that looked like.”

She does believe the common thread of ignorance expressed by multiple chapters was not an attempt to avoid repercussions.

“I assume good intent with our students and I don’t think that they intentionally are saying that or responding in a way that doesn’t take accountability,” Clement-Montgomery said. “I think that they may have honestly not understood the implications of their actions and the behaviors of their members.”

Dr. Kristen Turner, the vice president for student success at UK, was also a part of the student conduct committee. She noted that even though fraternities said they were not aware of the implications of their actions, they were all given guidelines on the front end about how the Code of Student Conduct would apply to gatherings.

“What it meant in the year of COVID was that if a group of student org members, even if it’s off campus and it’s not part of a registered event, if there’s a collection of students the organization … can be brought up on charges of the conduct,” Turner said.

Those clauses were explicitly included in the presentation Turner gave to each organization. Additionally, the slides specifically said “do not host large groups (+10).”

After 18 months of the COVID-19 pandemic, Greek life organizations are the only student orgs listed on the conduct status website as on probation for any reason, not just COVID-19 violations. Even the tips UK received focus on Greek life’s role in the bigger picture of COVID-19 among college students.

“Greek life has the opportunity to make a huge difference in the rate of infection on this campus, positively or negatively, and this fraternity has chosen to use their platform to put hundreds, if not thousands, of students at risk,” read a tip submitted to UK about a Delta Sigma Phi party.

Though the university declined to say what percentage of UK students who contracted COVID-19 were members of Greek life, some metrics exist that indicate those cases were a significant portion of student positives.

Out of the 49 students in COVID-19 isolation after the first two weeks of classes in August 2020, 30 were residents of two on-campus fraternity houses. During entrance testing, Greek life students tested positive for COVID-19 at triple the rate of the student body, with a positivity rate of 3 percent compared to a general rate of 1 percent.

This led to mandatory retesting for all 5,500 Greek students. In his announcement of the retesting, UK president Eli Capilouto said “we believe FSL houses have some challenges around communal living space and arrangements that may make it more difficult to mitigate the risk of spreading the virus.”

The prevalence of COVID-19 among Greek life organizations also led UK’s fraternities to move their 2020 rush week to a virtual format instead of the planned hybrid format. But administrators said they did not see Greek life violating COVID-19 protocols at a higher rate than other groups.

“I would not say that it was particularly FSL (Fraternity and Sorority Life), I would say that that’s pretty spread out amongst all members of our community,” Clement-Montgomery said.

Both Turning Point USA and Christian Student Fellowship were both reported to UK for hosting events over COVID-19 capacity limits in the 2020-2021 school year, though neither faced long-term disciplinary consequences like fraternities did.

All of the infractions committed by the eight fraternities took place at off-campus residences rented by fraternity members. Even though fraternities are still student organizations, UK has less governance over off-campus activities, raising the question of whether parties like these were inevitable, as some predicted prior to the start of the semester.

“I find it laughable that the university dared to tweet about having faith in students when students are now doing exactly what everyone said they would do all along. I am genuinely scared to be on campus at this point, not only for myself but for the health of my family when I inevitably have to return home,” said one of the tips reporting a fraternity party, submitted to UK via the incident reporting form.

Over one weekend in September, Lexington police received 96 calls about parties occurring in predominantly student neighborhoods along Waller, Elizabeth and State streets.

“We recognized very early, particularly with off campus populations, that we needed to partner with the city, in that this was kind of both our responsibility and wrapping our arms around the community and supporting them and educating them,” Clement-Montgomery said.

A joint partnership between Lexington police and UK police was one initiative to oversee off campus partying.

“They would literally go into certain neighborhoods, and we would share information about maybe communities that we heard that there were a lot of different parties on this particular street,” Clement-Montgomery said.

Overall, she felt FSL and student offices did “the right thing” in communicating the expectations and consequences to students and organizations like fraternities.

Violations of COVID-19 protocol were new to the 2020-2021 school year, but those infractions were frequently coupled with violations of the university’s existing alcohol policy.

UK adjusted their alcohol policy for FSL three years ago, following the death of a 4-year-old when he was struck by a fraternity pledge, Jacob Heil, who was driving on a football game day while over the legal blood alcohol limit, according to his breathalyzer results. His case is ongoing in Fayette Court, with his next appearance scheduled for Oct. 1.

Heil, who was a minor at the time, was given beer by his fraternity, Alpha Tau Omega. ATO was revoked as an organization and faces a 15-year ban on campus, the longest among disciplined fraternities. Even with the fallout for Alpha Tau Omega, other fraternities admitted in their investigation reports to providing alcohol to minors at rush week events.

Case notes from the investigation into UK fraternity Triangle say that partygoers sent a collective account of money using Venmo to purchase alcohol for underage and of age chapter members. The anonymous tip that led to Kappa Alpha Order’s suspension stated that new members were instructed to finish a collective bottle of vodka before being welcomed to the group.

“One new member who over consumed was also taken to the hospital around 6 p.m. that night for over consumption of alcohol,” the tip claimed, a fact later confirmed in the Office of Student Conduct’s investigation.

Part of UK’s alcohol policy requires that fraternities register any events with the potential for alcohol to the university and specify that they are “Bring Your Own Beer” events. Pi Kappa Alpha, a fraternity on probation for misuse of alcohol and failure to follow COVID-19 protocol, did not register their event because they did not think it was necessary, according to their president’s investigation report.

That failure was one of multiple instances in the conduct records where fraternity representatives claimed that they were unaware of or confused about university guidelines, despite multiple assertions from the university that they provided one-on-one guidance to each Greek organization.

Nearly every fraternity on probation or revocation said that their gatherings were not intended to be above capacity limits. According to conduct documents, fraternity members “misunderstood” the gatherings and invited acquaintances outside of the chapter.

Despite those claims, the Office of Student Conduct found that some fraternities violated COVID-19 protocol with repeated gatherings and that in some instances “no COVID-19 safety guidelines” were outlined by the fraternity.

Student Conduct Process

Suspended fraternities received their penalties as an outcome of conduct investigations examining the validity of tips submitted to the university.

Conduct investigations are led by the Office of Student Conduct, which is a unit of the Office of Student Success overseen by Turner. The OSC opens an investigation only when the university receives a tip about a student’s alleged behavior. For the fraternity investigations in the 2020-2021 school year, Mike Brown was the acting director of the Office of Student Conduct. Brown, Clement-Montgomery and two representatives from the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life (FSL) sat on the board for each case.

The office’s first step is to determine if that tip warrants an investigation and if there is enough evidence to conclude that the Code of Student Conduct was indeed violated. If not, the case is dismissed. The OSC also contacts the relevant students – those identified in the tip – to let them know they are under investigation.

If the tip does merit an investigation, a representative from the OSC will hold an informal hearing with the student or students being investigated. At the informal hearing, the students are invited to share their side of the story. The informal hearing will result in either a none-responsible or responsible finding, depending on if the student or students involved are reasonably answerable for the violation of the Code of Student Conduct.

Individuals or organizations can meet any of several criteria to be found responsible for a violation. In the case of the fraternity violations, some of the criteria were:

  • Whether an outsider could or would reasonably conclude that the party or gathering was associated or hosted by the fraternity
  • Whether the party or gathering was planned or promoted by the fraternity or members of the fraternity
  • Whether officers of the fraternity were aware of the gathering beforehand
  • Whether the event was hosted at a residence associated with the fraternity or rented by fraternity members

If the students accept responsibility, they then work with the OSC to create a restorative action plan during the informal hearing. If the students do not agree that they should be found responsible, the case moves to a formal hearing that repeats a similar process.

Restorative action plans are meant to address the violations the student or students were found responsible for. They can include educational seminars, changes to organizational structure, trainings provided by the university or other steps designed to prevent similar infractions.

Common items in the restorative action plans of the eight fraternities are presentations on FSL policy and COVID-19 that must be attended by 80 percent of the organization. Another common item was the creation of an “event safety” plan for future events held in-person by the organization. If fraternities do not complete their restorative action plans, their probation or revocation can be extended.

Probation and revocation are both outcomes of the conduct process. Revocation is a more severe and all-encompassing penalty, while probation is often shorter and more lenient.

According to UK spokesperson Jay Blanton, organizations that are on probation may recruit new members.

“Probation basically means the organization is on notice or watch for a defined period of time. If the organization violates another code violation within that probationary period, they can receive more severe sanctions for their next violation,” Blanton said.

Revocation is defined as the loss of all the privileges of a student organization, including access to university funding, facilities usage and the ability to recruit new members.

The Kernel obtained documents from the conduct investigations via multiple open records requests. UK has not filled a Sept. 7, 2021, request for records related to the probation of Kappa Sigma, Alpha Sigma Phi and Phi Gamma Delta.

Earlier requests returned multiple types of documents common across the other five cases. Due to student privacy laws, the names of the students referenced in the documents are redacted.

The first associated document for each case is the initial tip received by the university about the alleged violations. Most tips were submitted via UK’s incident reporting form, which enables community members to report students for misbehavior.

The second common document is an email sent from the Office of Student Conduct to each respective fraternity notifying them that they are now the subject of an investigation. Because Brown was the acting director of the OSC, he was the main correspondent between the office and the fraternities. Thus, the emails cited by the Kernel are from Brown to the relevant fraternity.

A third document is the investigation report or event summary, written by the chapter president of each fraternity, that was sent to the OSC as part of the informal hearing. In these summaries, the presidents provide their account of the event in question, the only first-person perspective from the fraternities in the records.

A fourth kind of document obtained by the Kernel are emails to each fraternity notifying them of the outcome of their investigation, outlining which violations they were found responsible for and why. This email also included the restorative action plan outline.

The records for some investigations also included Brown’s case notes, which are observations made by Brown during informal meetings with the fraternities.