The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Swarthmore fraternities disband after outrage over leaked documents joking about ‘rape attic’

Swarthmore College students sang during a sit-in at the Phi Psi fraternity house on April 28 in Swarthmore, Pa., in protest of (Video: Olivia Robbins for Voices via Storyful)

Swarthmore College’s two fraternities announced Tuesday that they are disbanding after weathering intense criticism over leaked documents that contained allegations of a “rape attic” as well as homophobic, racist and misogynistic language.

In statements posted to Facebook Tuesday night, members of Phi Psi, which is not nationally affiliated, and Delta Upsilon wrote that they had unanimously decided to dissolve their fraternities and give up their houses. In April, a redacted version of a 116-page document that reportedly contained Phi Psi’s old meeting minutes and details of pledge tasks was published by two campus publications, revealing troubling details about the culture within the selective Pennsylvania college’s fraternities.

The documents feature graphic descriptions of members’ sexual encounters, including a reference to an alleged “rape tunnel.” It also describes their conversations about women, minority groups and sexual assault that often contained offensive language, such as homophobic and racial slurs. The documents chronicle activities between 2010 and 2016, the Phoenix, one of the student publications, reported.

“We cannot in good conscience be members of an organization with such a painful history,” the members of Phi Psi said in Tuesday’s statement. “Since the start of our membership, we made it our mission to improve the culture and perception of Phi Psi. Unfortunately, the wounds are too deep to repair...”

The college’s chapter of Delta Upsilon wrote that disbanding was “in the best interest of the Swarthmore community.”

“We hope that our former house will provide a space that is inclusive, safe, and promotes healing,” the fraternity’s statement said.

The fraternities’ announcements came after mounting student protests, including a days-long sit-in at the Phi Psi house, prompted administrators to suspend all fraternity activity on the campus located west of Philadelphia pending the results of an investigation.

“We respect these students’ decision to take this action, and we appreciate their strong condemnation of behavior described in the 2013-16 materials that have recently come to light,” Swarthmore College President Valerie Smith said in a statement early Wednesday about the fraternities disbanding.

Smith added: “Still, as a community, we have much healing to do.”

For two years, Maya Henry regularly spent time at the college’s two fraternity houses. Every week, the modest stone structures would transform into dens of drunken revelry as partygoers packed in sweaty rooms imbibed on cheap alcohol and danced the night away to a soundtrack of the latest Top 40 hits.

Henry, however, never attended those parties by choice. Henry had a job to do.

“Most days, my job was to prevent sexual violence and my job was to make sure that somebody wasn’t going to get harmed,” Henry, now a junior, told The Washington Post. The 20-year-old is a member of Swarthmore’s SwatTeam, a student-led organization that works to ensure safety at public campus events where alcohol is served.

“I would sprint up the stairs that lead to the bedroom that’s referred to as the ‘rape attic’ because I knew that there was only one woman up there and a bunch of fraternity brothers,” Henry said.

For many students, including Henry, the contents of the documents were not surprising.

“It confirms people’s experiences,” Henry said. “It confirms the stories.”

Henry said the documents were difficult to read because of how “disturbing” they are, adding, “It just made me remember the heightened anxiety I felt working there, trying to protect my fellow students and also trying to protect myself.”

A number of these experiences, which implicated Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon, were published in a Tumblr blog that was started in early April called “Why Swarthmore’s Fraternities Must Go.” Now, the page features more than 100 submissions from people whose identities were kept anonymous. In first- and secondhand accounts, writers described how they were allegedly assaulted at fraternity events or by members between 2015 and 2019. Other posts detailed instances in which members allegedly exhibited homophobic, racist and sexist behavior. (Names of fraternities and members were not included in the posts).

It wasn’t long after the blog went up that the documents were leaked, Morgin Goldberg, a senior, told The Post.

“We realized that together it’s actually a pretty damning account of fraternity violence and harm,” said Goldberg, 22, one of the students who created the blog and helped organize the sit-in.

The contents of the leaked documents drew backlash from administrators and the current members of Phi Psi.

“What is contained within those pages is vulgar and deeply offensive to all of us," Smith said in a statement Monday. The racism, misogyny, and homophobia described within them is antithetical to the values of the College and violates the student code of conduct as well as basic decency.”

In a statement shared to Facebook on April 17, the fraternity’s members said they “wholeheartedly condemn the language in the 2013 and 2014 notes, as they are not representative of who we are today.”

“All our current brothers were in high school and middle school at the time of these unofficial minutes, and none of us would have joined the organization had this been the standard when we arrived at Swarthmore,” the statement said.

However, when Goldberg looked through the leaked files and compared them to the blog posts, which mention more recent events, she said themes started to appear. Although jokes about a bedroom in the fraternity house known as the “rape attic” were from 2013, people are still writing about allegedly “getting assaulted in the rooms or seeing their friends get assaulted in the rooms,” she said.

The fraternities have not directly addressed the allegations in the blog, and in Wednesday’s statement Smith said that at this time, administrators “have no evidence that any current student participated in the behaviors documented in those materials.”

“An external investigator will still analyze the documents to confirm whether this is the case," Smith said.

The testimonials and the documents were enough to motivate Goldberg and other students to take action in April, demanding the college terminate its housing leases with the fraternities. Protests were held and meetings among administrators were disrupted. All the while, former members of both fraternities wrote op-eds in the Phoenix calling for the college to remove the chapters from campus. The college also has one sorority.

Similar demands have been made against the fraternities in the past, but “never manifested in actually getting rid of these frats,” Goldberg said. Last year, a committee tasked with assessing campus culture recommended that a moratorium be placed on the houses, which Smith decided not to impose.

When it became apparent to Goldberg and other student activists that their efforts this time around weren’t yielding the results they wanted, she said they decided to push harder.

On Saturday, a group of about 50 students “rushed in” to the Phi Psi house, and soon the group grew to more than 100 people, Goldberg said. The students took over inside and occupied the lawn outside the house, hanging homemade banners that said, “CLOSE THE ‘RAPE ATTIC.’ TIME’S UP,” and “END THE FRATS.” Although they did not storm Delta Upsilon, located next door, protesters hung up signs outside. One spray-painted bedsheet read, “STILL A RAPE HAVEN.”

“The sit-in really came after many different kinds of direct action that seemed like they were still not working even though we were putting all that we had on the table,” Goldberg said. “The sit-in was our way to say, ‘Actually, this space is ours.’ ”

Hours after the sit-in began, Smith announced the suspension of fraternity activities. She wrote that administrators had received unredacted copies of the files and were coordinating with the external investigator.

Henry said the documents were necessary to get people such as administrators, professors and those with friends in fraternities to be “moved to do something.”

“We had hard proof that somebody would take seriously,” Henry said.