Severe penalties for Sigma Chi after Derby Day debacle

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Clay Wooley and Abby Bruce discuss how to positively address sexual harassment on the Ole Miss campus.

Larrison Campbell, Mississippi Today

Clay Wooley and Abby Bruce discuss how to positively address sexual harassment on the Ole Miss campus.

The University of Mississippi has slapped Sigma Chi with a series of penalties following an investigation into allegations of sexual misconduct that occurred during the fraternity’s Derby Days dance competition.

The sanctions include a full year of social probation which bars the fraternity from hosting any events, including philanthropic ones. Sigma Chi also is not allowed to have a 2016 pledge class, and current fraternity members must participate in a community service event and a forum addressing sexual harassment, drugs and alcohol.

Clay Wooley, president of Sigma Chi, said the fraternity plans to appeal the ruling.

“It’s kind of surprising and certainly disappointing,” Wooley said. “I was hoping for something less punitive and more restorative.”

The university confirmed that the Judicial Council had issued its ruling but declined to comment further.

“However, all parties have the opportunity to appeal decisions made by the Judicial Council. Once all appellate opportunities have been exhausted, the university may report the final outcome of the case,” the university said in a statement.

The Title IX investigation was kicked off last month after a Facebook post by sophomore Abby Bruce went viral. In it she described feeling discomfort and anger as she watched two members of Sigma Chi ask a series of sexually inappropriate questions to the women participating in their Derby Days dance competition.

Title IX, a federal mandate, protects male and female students in an educational setting from gender-based discrimination, including sexual harassment. After this office conducts its investigation, it sends its report to the office of Student Conduct and Conflict resolution, which assembles the judicial panel that issues the decision. Any appeals, however, are handled by the Office of Student Affairs, which is made up of university administrators who deal directly with students.

The sanctions apply to the fraternity as a whole. The two students who allegedly made the comments were not singled out, although the fraternity has the option to conduct their own investigation after this one concludes.

“I want everyone to understand that we need to be punished for this, no question. I’m not trying to get out of it,” Wooley said. “I just want it to be the right way, because I’m trying to look forward and make changes for the better. Because it’s already happened, it’s already over with.”

Wooley said he feels the ruling focuses too much on punishing the fraternity for past events without trying to fix the problems that led to this incident. He said he had wanted more community service, and, instead of one forum on sexual assault, drugs and alcohol mandated by the decision, he had asked for a series of smaller workshops addressing these issues.

“That way there’s active participation, people can ask questions and feel more engaged, rather than a blanket forum, which research has shown does not work as well,” Wooley said.

The appeal, which is due two weeks from Friday, would likely address these complaints as well as asking to lessen the social probation and the penalties on next year’s pledge class, according to Wooley. He said the ban on social functions was frustrating because the Derby Days incident had inspired the Interfraternity Council to issue new party rules, which Sigma Chi will not be able to implement for another year under the current sanctions.

Wooley is not the only student who wants to move on. Abby Bruce, the author of the viral post, said she’s hopeful the issues raised by the Derby Days incident will lead to campus-wide change.

“What I really want out of this whole incident is positive, systematic reform to make the campus environment more inclusive, with regards to women, but also overall, too,” Bruce said.

She has been working with Wooley and four other students to find ways of connecting different groups of students across the Ole Miss campus. Last Friday, they sat down with officials from the Office of Student Affairs, the Center for Inclusion and Cross Cultural Engagement, and the Office of Violence Prevention to discuss their proposals.

The Office of Student Affairs has also asked members of the fraternities and sororities to re-invision how their social and philanthropic events work. At the top of the list are the competitions that make up the Derby Days week. Although this is the fraternity’s annual philanthropic event, some students have said that too many of the activities require the sororities to compete against each other without actually raising money. Wooley said he and the members of his fraternity are open to changes.

“I’m really encouraged,” Bruce said. “I think the university is headed in a very positive direction. Change is a slow process, and cultural change is a slow process, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen.”