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Violent sorority hazing haunts University,

officials refuse to identify suspects

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Violent sorority hazing haunts University,

A Daily Helmsman’s investigation by Jonathan A Capriel

                                                                                                                                                      

After suffering insults, slaps to the face and being forced to answer to nicknames like “Fail,” 11 University of Memphis sorority pledges stood in line for one last humiliation.

It was well past 9 p.m. when the tallest member of the Rho Gamma Chapter of Zeta Phi Beta grabbed the shortest pledge by the back of her hair, tilted the student’s head back and smacked her face with an open palm.

The other Zetas watched and jeered as the tall women went down the line beating faces. During the attack, one pledge heard the crunch of her own nose breaking. The student was later taken to Baptist Memorial Hospital, where doctors treated her broken nose.


“The University has received complaints that allege members of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. have made comments which have been perceived as threatening,”

--Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Daniel Armitage 


These details and many more, surrounding the February 2014 hazing of pledges by the Zeta Phi Beta sorority, came to light last month in March 2015 when internal university documents describing the event were leaked to The Daily Helmsman.

While the U of M punished the Zeta Phi Beta students by suspending the campus’s sorority chapter for three years, there’s no evidence that the University punished members individually.

Furthermore, the University is refusing to release the identities of alumni who, according to the University records, participated in the hazing and those accused of assaulting pledges.

The hazing took place at the home of a Zeta Phi Beta member who had graduated from the University several months earlier, according to university records obtained by The Daily Helmsman. These records are separate from those leaked.

The U of M’s own investigation found the sorority guilty of “conduct dangerous to others,” “physical abuse” and “hazing” as defined by the student code of conduct.


“It is not a legitimate use of FERPA to withhold records of misconduct just because that person happens to have attended the college... her interaction with the university is like any other member of the public.”

--Frank LoMonte, lawyer and executive director of the Student Press Law Center


The names of those accused of assaulting pledges were blacked out from University documents. However, a Memphis Police Department report filed in 2014 names two sorority members as suspects—Alelia Higgenbottom, then a secondary officer for the sorority, and Melanie Freeman. However, it appears police did not bring charges.

On the night of the hazing, the police report states, Higgenbottom slapped at least one pledge across the face and Freeman “assaulted (the pledge) by holding the back of her head and hitting her between the eye with the other hand.”

At least one Zeta Phi Beta university graduate participated in the hazing by allowing it to occur in her home, U of M documents confirmed. The University declined to disclose the identity of this person and her name was blacked out from documents.

The U of M’s Office of Legal Counsel said the university could not release the name because the alumna was once a student of the University, her information is protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act or FERPA.

But this interpretation of the law is in dispute.


“Remember I told y’all if you had any questions to ask me then?” One of the sorority leaders asked. “Well, I don’t care anymore now.”


 

FERPA prevents institutions of higher education from sharing student academic records. Even after graduation, those records are still private.

However, the law does not protect records created about former students after they are no longer enrolled at the institution, explained Frank LoMonte, lawyer and executive director of the Student Press Law Center, an advocacy group for student journalists based out of Washington D.C.

“It is not a legitimate use of FERPA to withhold records of misconduct just because that person happens to have attended the college,” LoMonte said. “That person is not subject to the disciplinary authority of the student conduct process if she is not a student, so her interaction with the university is like any other member of the public.”

The University suspended the Zeta Phi Beta sorority on April 10, 2014 effective until August 18, 2017. This means the group is not recognized as a registered student organization and cannot participate in on-campus events or recruit new members. Both Higgenbottom and Freeman left the University in the fall 2014 semester. Neither graduated from the U of M. The Daily Helmsman attempted to contact both Higgenbottom and Freeman, but they did not respond.

The university records contain no information about whether any of the individual sorority members faced any university disciplinary proceedings.


The University described the event as a “hazing” orchestrated by “active members of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority,” which occurred at an “alumni member’s residence,” according to documents released in March 2015.


Associate Vice President for Student Affairs Daniel Armitage said, the University could not comment on any particular student or student group that violated the code of conduct.

“I can’t respond to any individual questions because there are educational rights to privacy,” Armitage said. “The only thing I can tell you is that anytime there is an investigation, which involves any student or student organization, the University has appropriate protocols in place. Students and student organizations have the right to due process.”

Even after last year’s sorority’s suspension, U of M officials dealt with allegations that the Zeta Phi Betas continued to harass one former pledge, according to University records.

Members of the sorority threatened at least one hazing victim and tried to gain access to her social media accounts, according to an email from the U of M’s Office of the Dean of Students to Donna Williams, the state director of Zeta Phi Beta Sorority Inc. The Helmsman obtained the email under Tennessee’s Open Records law.

“The University has received complaints that allege members of the Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, Inc. have made comments which have been perceived as threatening,” Armitage wrote in the email dated April 29, 2014. Armitage also demanded that “members of Zeta Phi Beta have no contact with the student who was the victim of hazing… any violation of this directive would result in investigation and potential disciplinary actions for individual students and/or the organization.”

This email and seven other pages of heavily censored records related to the hazing only came to light after The Daily Helmsman submitted several open-records requests within a two month period and enlisted the aid of the Student Press Law Center.

The University described the event as a “hazing” orchestrated by “active members of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority,” which occurred at an “alumni member’s residence,” according to documents released in March 2015.

Aside from those listed in the police report, the University has not disclosed the names of those who attended this meeting. At the time of the hazing there were at least 10 members of the sorority attending the U of M.

The Daily Helmsman was only able to get one of the Zeta Phi Beta members on the phone but she did not want to comment for this story.

What happened during the hazing was censored out of records released by the University. The leaked documents, however, explain not only what happened on the night of the hazing but also what transpired days before.

On Feb. 2, 2014 at least six members of Zeta Phi Beta invited a group of sorority hopefuls to a member’s apartment where they viewed the movie “School Daze,” according to the leaked documents.

The pledges were encouraged to ask members of Zeta Phi Beta questions. One pledge described sorority leadership as “very friendly” on this night. The pledges were asked to sign paper work that said they understood the difference between “pledging and hazing.”

At the end of this meeting, sorority leadership told the hopefuls they should “have fun now; because once the process begins, we aren’t going to have as much freedom.”

Sorority leadership held another meeting at a different member’s home on Feb. 8, 2014. The pledges were told they “would get paddled, yelled in the face, but (Zeta Phi Beta members) wouldn’t do anything to harm” them.

After the pledges signed more paperwork, the tone changed completely.

“Remember I told y’all if you had any questions to ask me then?” One of the sorority leaders asked. “Well, I don’t care anymore now,” according to the documents.

The documents say the hazing occurred on Feb. 9, 2014.

Two days later, according to the documents, on February 11, 2014, the pledge with a broken nose sought medical attention after her eye turned black.

(1) comment

MichaelCarrr

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