American University has expelled 18 students and disciplined one more for their involvement with Epsilon Iota, an underground student group that has been linked for years to physical violence, hazing, sexual abuse, underage drinking, and drug use.
The actions, announced Monday, are final and follow unsuccessful appeals by many of the accused. The university had been warning students for more than a decade to stay away from the rogue fraternity, which formed in 2002 after the university and the national office of Alpha Tau Omega both withdrew recognition of the Epsilon Iota chapter because of drinking, hazing, and other violations.
Last year the university amended its student conduct code to ban involvement with unrecognized groups that violate university rules. That allowed it to discipline students who had essentially been thumbing their noses at the university by keeping the banned chapter alive. With no oversight, such underground fraternities can be even more dangerous and hard to control, national experts say.
"This group has perpetuated and systematically presented a threat to the safety and well-being of our students," Fanta Aw, the university’s interim vice president for campus life, said in a prepared statement on Monday. "This should send a strong message to anyone involved with groups engaged in activities prohibited by the conduct code."
The expulsions will be permanently recorded on the academic records of the 18 students. The 19th student was placed on disciplinary probation, which excludes him from holding campus leadership positions, as well as participating in certain other student activities.
Hank Nuwer, a professor of journalism at Franklin College and a national expert on hazing, called the expulsions "a highly unusual sweeping punishment for a group." He said that if the move "causes renegade undergrounders at other schools to either clean up their behaviors or face similar expulsions … well then, hurrah for AU."
In 2000, hazing and alcohol violations prompted the national fraternity to suspend the campus chapter several times. American University also filed student conduct charges against members.
Faced with a further crackdown by the national fraternity, the chapter voluntarily surrendered its charter and the university withdrew recognition in 2001.
That should have been the end of it, but the following year, former members created a group they called Epsilon Iota — the name of the chapter that had been banned from campus.
Over the years, it continued to recruit, haze new members, and hold loud, raucous parties, according to the university. Complaints against the members began with relatively minor matters like public urination and littering and expanded to include assault and rape. Most of the behavior happened off campus.
Outrage over the group escalated in 2014, when 70 pages of lurid emails and text messages were leaked in which people who were believed to be members bragged about drug use and raping drunk women.
Since 2010, American has charged 67 members of the student group with conduct-code violations, referring some to law-enforcement officials. It was unclear on Monday whether any of those had resulted in criminal charges.
Stephen Yasko, who was a member of Alpha Tau Omega’s Epsilon Iota chapter at American University in the early 1980s, said he was "heartbroken" by how the remnants of his campus chapter had devolved over the years.
"As a group, we’ve been disgusted by the stories that have been brought to our attention over the years concerning Epsilon Iota," Mr. Yasko, a nonprofit media and arts executive in Baltimore, wrote in an email. "It bears no resemblance to our shared experience and it sounds like the American University has taken the right and appropriate action."
Calls to Alpha Tau Omega were referred to the national organization’s chief executive, Wynn Smiley.
He stressed that his fraternity has no connection to the unauthorized student group, but said the perception that they were linked has made it difficult to re-establish a chapter at American.
Katherine Mangan writes about community colleges, completion efforts, and job training, as well as other topics in daily news. Follow her on Twitter @KatherineMangan, or email her at email@example.com.