At the start of the new semester, sororities around the country brace for snow, dust off their white dresses and prepare for formal recruitment.
But one sorority at the University of Virginia will continue battling its school in a lawsuit instead.
The U-Va. chapter of Sigma Lambda Upsilon filed a federal complaint in September challenging hazing allegations made by the university. The lawsuit comes at a time when hazing is in the national spotlight and when fraternities at Louisiana State University and the University of Pennsylvania have been shut down.
The Sigma Lambda Upsilon case is raising questions about what constitutes hazing.
The sorority claimed in its lawsuit that U-Va. violated its “freedom to associate on campus” when the school determined the sorority’s requirement that members study 25 hours a week violated the school’s hazing policy. U-Va. had suspended the sorority last spring.
The sorority also alleged that U-Va. officials conspired to deprive the group of its constitutional rights, and a judge last month approved a motion by Sigma Lambda Upsilon to name five university officials as defendants.
The lawsuit says the university “does not impose a less-than-25-study-hour rule on any other ethnic group.” Sigma Lambda Upsilon describes itself on the sorority website as “an organization of diverse collegiate and professional women dedicated to uplifting traditionally marginalized groups, specifically Latinos and women.”
But emails exchanged between university officials and Sigma Lambda Upsilon detail allegations of serious hazing activity — extending beyond the study requirement — involving the sorority last year. The university provided the emails to The Washington Post.
Last February, the Office of the Dean of Students received a tip claiming new members of the sorority were expected to spend upward of 50 hours a week with the group, to stay on campus for spring break without explanation and to “stare at a fixed point on the wall, while standing for unreasonable amounts of time.” The tip claimed that new members were enduring “physical, emotional and mental stress” as a result of these activities.
Sheridan England, one of the attorneys representing Sigma Lambda Upsilon, said the university’s claims were exaggerated.
“We’re not aware of any member who felt harassed in any way,” he said. “We think hazing policies are important, but there is not a single person who has been hazed here.”
Angie Aramayo, the president of the Sigma Lambda Upsilon chapter at U-Va., declined to comment.
The university suspended Sigma Lambda Upsilon for the spring 2018 semester until the national organization and the Office of the Dean of Students could amend the sorority’s membership requirements.
University of Virginia spokesman Anthony de Bruyn said in a statement that “the university does not condone hazing in any form and thoroughly investigates any allegation. Hazing is prohibited under the state statute on hazing . . . as well as by university policy and the university’s Standards of Conduct.”
Sigma Lambda Upsilon’s 25-hour weekly study requirement has remained the focal point of its lawsuit and media reports. The sorority argues the university “made its hazing finding despite never providing Sigma Lambda Upsilon or any other fraternal organization notice of a general prohibition against studying 25 hours per week.”
University officials last month did not respond to requests for comment about specific assertions made in the sorority’s lawsuit.
Hazing is defined by U-Va. as actions taken by members of a student organization toward other members or prospective members that cause “mental or physical harassment, discomfort, or ridicule.” Hazing is a Class 1 misdemeanor in Virginia.
A university investigation confirmed the claims of the initial tip in March. In addition to the 25-hour weekly study requirement, new members were expected to participate in 10- to 12-hour sessions on Saturdays and Sundays to learn about the sorority’s history and culture. Chapter leadership acknowledged new members spend a significant amount of time standing during these sessions — “two hour periods approximately three times a session.”
In one of the emails between university officials and the sorority, Caroline Ott, program coordinator for fraternity and sorority life at U-Va., said new members of Sigma Lambda Upsilon expressed emotional distress and struggled to meet the time demands of the new member process.
During interviews with Ott, new members indicated they were “assigned Sigma Lambda Upsilon project time, structured study time, structured eating time, and time that must be spent with sisters,” according to the emails. New members were also asked to dress in similar clothing, typically in a certain color scheme, each day.
In the same interview, however, Ott noted that new members “expressed sentiments of feeling supported by the chapter.”
Hazing — dangerous, often humiliating initiation rituals — has strained the fraught relationship between Greek organizations and universities in recent years.
Hazing rituals can cause stress and significantly damage the well-being of new members, many of whom are first-year students. In January, Felicia Hankins filed a lawsuit against Alpha Kappa Alpha alleging that the sorority’s chapter at Northwestern University brutally hazed her daughter, Jordan Hankins, eventually leading Jordan to kill herself.
A statement from the sorority’s headquarters said it has a “zero-tolerance” hazing policy, according to a report in the Daily Northwestern, the student newspaper.