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Virginia frat's 'demeaning' display highlights crux of college assault culture

The Old Dominion University chapter of the Sigma Nu fraternity has been suspended pending an investigation into several derogatory banners welcoming freshman girls on move-in day at the Virginia university.

Dropping a child off a college for the first time is a bittersweet moment for parents – and students. For families arriving at Old Dominion University in Virginia this past weekend, that moment was tinged with an additional layer of discomfort thanks to a trio of lewd banners draped from the balcony of a fraternity house welcoming freshman women to campus.

The university chapter of Sigma Nu has since been suspended by the fraternity’s national organization, pending an investigation, for the “derogatory and demeaning language used on the banners.” 

“Such language has no place in our Fraternity or within any caring community, such as that of ODU,” Brad Beacham, executive director of Sigma Nu, said in a statement announcing the suspension on Monday. “Any Fraternity member found to be responsible for this reprehensible display will be held accountable by the Fraternity.”

The suggestive banners, which were displayed at a private home housing several Sigma Nu members, read “Rowdy and fun! Hope your baby girl is ready for a good time,” “Freshman daughter drop-off,” and “Go ahead and drop mom off too.” 

Mr. Beacham said that he had initially believed the display to be the work of individuals outside the fraternity but that new evidence had emerged on Monday suggesting that “some chapter members may have had involvement with the banners.”

The university condemned the banners in several statements since the weekend.

“At ODU, we foster a community of respect and dignity and these messages sickened us,” said ODU spokeswoman Giovanna Genard in a statement provided to local NewsChannel 3.

On Saturday, the university Facebook page featured a statement from Ellen Neufeldt, ODU’s vice president of student engagement and enrollment services:

“Messages like the ones displayed [Friday] by a few students on the balcony of their private residence are not and will not be tolerated. The moment University staff became aware of these banners, they worked to have them removed," Ms. Neufeld said. "Ours is a community that works actively to promote bystander intervention and takes a stand denouncing violence against women.”

The incident comes at a time when colleges, universities, and student organizations across the country are trying to get a handle on the large number of incidents of rape and date rape on campus. 

Nationally, 1 in 5 women experience some form of sexual assault while on campus, according to a 2007 Justice Department report. That study found that freshman and sophomores are at the greatest risk of sexual assault. A subsequent DOJ report released in 2014 found a much lower rate of incidence – just 6.1 cases per 1,000 individuals. However, there have been other studies that have found rates of occurrence similar to to the 1 in 5 statistic. 

A more recent study conducted by researchers at Brown University in Providence, R.I., and released in May, found that nearly 19 percent of women attending one school in the Northeast had experienced rape or attempted rape at some point during their freshman and sophomore year. That data suggested that such incidents are most prevalent during the first semester of freshman year, as The Christian Science Monitor’s Stacy Teicher Khadaroo reported.

Both the DOJ and the Brown data suggest that alcohol plays a large role in campus assaults, a fact that makes the placement banners at a frat house – typically known for wild, alcohol-fueled parties – even more unsettling. Addressing that particular aspect of college culture has been difficult for university administrators. Many parties take place off-campus in private housing, such as the ODU’s Sigma Nu fraternity. 

Some colleges and student organizations have launched education programs designed to educate young women about how to avoid ending up incapacitated in a vulnerable situation, but some critics say such efforts essentially blame the victim.

“Being incapacitated as the result of alcohol and drugs can never be a good thing, but it’s not a license to be assaulted,” Kate Carey, lead author of the Brown study and a professor of behavioral and social sciences at Brown University's School of Public Health, told the Monitor.

The "It's On Us" campaign, spearheaded by President Obama and voiced by prominent celebrities, challenges bystanders to intervene on behalf of anyone who appears to be at risk of being victimized. Students at Old Dominion worked with the White House on that campaign have made their own "It's On Us" video, according to the university's Women's Center website.

[Editor's note: This report has been updated to clarify the scope of the Brown University study.]

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