Student Judicial Services is using Facebook, the popular online social network used by thousands of students, to search for and identify members of unrecognized fraternities. Citing complaints they have received about unrecognized groups in past years, GW officials recently sent out letters to dozens of students believed to be in the fraternities demanding that they take action to stop alleged violations by the group or face punishment.
Tara Woolfson, director of SJS, confirmed that her office used “a number of methods including Facebook” to identify members of the unrecognized fraternity Alpha Pi Epsilon, or APES. The Web site, www.thefacebook.com, allows students to enter personal information in a profile. Students can also create online groups and designate members of those groups as officers.
Woolfson said letters sent to students included the names and positions of officers in the online group. A member of APES requesting anonymity said he had seen letters sent to others in the fraternity identifying them with titles created on a now-defunct APES Facebook group. The titles jokingly referred to members as “Token/Russian Spanish Guy” and “Gay Dude.”
“We know that these appellations are used by groups to distinguish one member from another and are not meant to be hurtful,” Woolfson said.
Woolfson said in an e-mail that a total of 49 letters were sent to APES members on April 4, and that letters went out to members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon – another unrecognized fraternity – on April 19. A Sigma Alpha Epsilon member speaking on the condition of anonymity said about 20 members have received the letters as well.
“The first reaction was we thought it was a prank,” an APES member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said.
The letters, signed by Associate Dean of Students Jan-Mitchell Sherrill, urged the two fraternities to stop violating the Student Code of Conduct. They did not mention any specific alleged violations by individuals who received the letters or by the groups.
“These behaviors, such as the use of drugs and alcohol, acts of violence, and other violations of the ‘Code of Student Conduct’ are unacceptable,” the letter said without elaborating further.
The letters added that a failure to comply with the SJS directive would be considered a violation by group leaders and by the group itself.
Another member of APES, also speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the University is “trying so hard to keep us low and a shadow organization.”
The Sigma Alpha Epsilon member said the overall culture of his fraternity was more organized than in the past and that the group is avoiding illicit behavior.
“We’re not about getting in trouble anymore,” he said. “Every fraternity has the same problems, but (GW officials) only come after us because I guess they feel like we are deliberately defying these ridiculous laws that they have.”
Sherrill said in an e-mail to The Hatchet that the University had received several complaints about APES practices from parents and students over the past several years. He did not say whether similar complaints were made about Sigma Alpha Epsilon.
“It is our hope that this behavior will not continue and the University will not be forced to take further action,” Sherrill said.
A contentious past
For years there has been ill will between the University and unrecognized fraternities. APES, formerly the recognized Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity, was kicked off campus in 2001 for hazing violations. Another group of students formed a recognized Alpha Epsilon Pi fraternity in 2003.
APES is one of three unrecognized fraternities -along with Sigma Alpha Epsilon and Sigma Alpha Mu – that do not receive University funding, but still host events and raise money for charity.
Sigma Alpha Epsilon, which lost recognition in 1993 due to hazing accusations, but still receives recognition from their national organization, was most recently at the center of a controversy last semester for allegedly participating in a charity kickball tournament. Unrecognized fraternities were not allowed to participate.
The fraternities themselves cite their charity work as evidence that the University’s criticism is unwarranted. APES recently raised $3,000 for the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life, and Sigma Alpha Epsilon raised $2,340 for the Washington General Burn Unit in a wiffleball tournament after a member of the group was severely burned in a March Thurston Hall fire.
The Hatchet received a copy of the letter sent to APES members through an anonymous e-mail. The sender said he did not know why he received the letter because he is not a member of APES or any other fraternity.
One APES member said the letter was likely sent because of an incident earlier this semester in which a freshman student was removed from Thurston Hall because of marijuana possession. The student implicated others – at least one of whom was in APES – with the hope of getting a lighter punishment from SJS. In January, he told The Hatchet that APES members were calling and instant messaging him; APES members denied harassing the freshman.
Woolfson said the University is responding to a group of APES members who chose to threaten and intimidate students.
“We are trying to … end this behavior which jeopardizes the health, safety and well-being of other students,” Woolfson said. She did not say why Sigma Alpha Epsilon members received letters.
A new investigative tool
Only registered Facebook users have access to the searchable network of students. Though staff members can join Facebook, neither Woolfson nor Sherrill are members of the network. Among the Facebook members listed under staff are seven University Police officers, including the department’s lead inspector and two supervisors.
Chris Hughes, a Facebook spokesperson, said officials at other universities have also used his Web site to target students for disciplinary action. In March, an Oklahoma University student was questioned by the Secret Service for making a joke on a Bush Sucks group’s message board about assassinating the president and replacing him with a monkey. The Secret Service was alerted about the message from another OU student, the school’s student newspaper reported.
“For better or worse, American universities are legally allowed to regulate their students behavior, often by Codes of Conduct, as GW seems to have,” Hughes said. “When students violate these codes – whether the violations are in the ‘virtual’ realm of the Internet or in face-to-face interactions – universities have the right to take disciplinary action.”
There are several Facebook groups that endorse behavior that could be in violation of the code of conduct, including the Pot Conservationists group, featuring 59 members, and the People Who Love to Drink group with 103. Students can also notify peers of parties through the Web site.
Hughes said students who don’t want administrators to access their profiles can adjust their privacy settings to block faculty or staff. But doing so may do little to assuage students’ privacy concerns because SJS looked at student groups, not student profiles, and this may have been done through a student account.
Some students questioned whether the University used the most appropriate method to target the fraternity members.
“I think SJS should be taking things from actual University documentation and research rather than a Web site that is out of
University context,” freshman Emily Sydnor said. “I don’t think official University departments should be using unofficial Web sites to punish people.”
But freshman Blade Smith said students should be weary of Facebook because of the wealth of personal information it can provide.
“Facebook is evil – it has so much potential to be used for the wrong reason,” Smith said.
-Michael Barnett, Jeff Baum, Ryan Holeywell and Lizzie Wozobski contributed to this report.