In March, before a gymnasium packed tight with friends and family, 21 young women from Fort Valley State University in central Georgia marked a milestone.

Glowing with pride, wearing matching black dresses, pearls and pink hats, the undergraduates were officially “crossing over” into the campus’s chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, one of the oldest and most-esteemed black Greek campus organizations in the country.

But just a month later, the Fort Valley chapter of the same sorority is now bogged down in a scandal over allegations of sexual misconduct and harassment.

Rolling Out, an Atlanta-based online magazine, reported that the controversy involves allegations that recent members of the sorority were involved in a sex ring to pay for pledging the organization. Citing unnamed sources, the magazine alleged that customers included local businessmen and politicians.

The controversy centers on Alecia Johnson, a Fort Valley State employee and graduate adviser to the campus’s AKA chapter, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported. Johnson, an AKA member, resigned her position in the university’s president’s office as news of a criminal investigation broke on campus in April. The scandal has lit a firestorm of speculation on social media and in the tightknit world of historically black colleges and universities.

On Monday, Nicole Carr of Atlanta’s Channel 2 asked Adrian Patrick, Johnson’s attorney, to address accusations that sorority hopefuls were “pimped out” to get money to join the organization.

“I just think that’s incredulous,” Patrick said. “I mean, I know people want to be in a sorority. I got that part. I just don’t think you’re going to sell your body. Plus, it’s inconsistent with the reputation of Alpha Kappa Alpha.”

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, both the Georgia Bureau of Investigation and the University Systems of Georgia have begun investigating reports of sexual misconduct and hazing tied to the school’s AKA chapter. The sorority’s national office is also looking into “unauthorized activities and misconduct involving current and former members,” according to an April 22 letter sent to the Fort Valley chapter. The same letter disqualified the Fort Valley AKA from participating in sorority activities while the investigations continue.

In a statement to Atlanta’s 11 Alive, the national office said it has a “zero-tolerance policy for hazing, member sexual misconduct, and harassment, and we take any allegations of this nature very seriously.”

Johnson’s attorney maintains that she is innocent.

“She’s not a pimp, and she’s not a madam. None of that,” Patrick told Channel 2. “She’s not guilty. She did not do anything.”

The allegations are not the only recent news to trouble Fort Valley State University, a historically black college southwest of Macon.

In June 2017, the school came under scrutiny after receiving an accreditation warning from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission of Colleges. It said that the university did not fulfill core requirements such as programs that support student learning and financial aid.

Amid the sorority inquiry, the Georgia Bureau of Investigation also is investigating an alleged “sexual battery” incident that took place between an 18-year-old female student and a former Fort Valley campus police officer.

Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Inc. is part of the “Divine Nine,” one of nine historically black Greek letter organizations that make up the National Pan-Hellenic Council. AKA was established for African American women and remains one of the largest multicultural sororities in the country. Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), Rep. Frederica S. Wilson (D-Fla.), actress Phylicia Rashad and author Toni Morrison are among the organization’s notable members.

To become a soror — the Latin term for sister — one must pledge, going through an initiation process that can last months. Essence magazine wrote an article about the things to know before pledging a historically black sorority, including being financially prepared and remaining secretive during the process.

Sorors are required to pay an initiation fee, monthly and/or yearly dues and other expenses, such as clothing and conference tickets. The average initiation cost for joining a National Pan-Hellenic Council sorority can run from $700 to $2,500, according to Auburn University. One student at the University of Texas at Arlington asked for donations on GoFundMe to pay for her $1,680 initiation fee to join AKA.

In 2007, Natasha S. Alford, the deputy editor at the Grio, wrote in the Harvard Crimson that “being Greek is a socially acceptable aspect of the African American community. Elevated and popularized by movies like ‘Stomp the Yard’ and by respectable members of the black community and historical figures like Martin Luther King Jr. who have donned Greek letters, being a member of black fraternity or sorority retains positive connotations in spite of the challenge of becoming one.”

According to the AKA’s website, “hazing will not be tolerated in any form.” The AKA chapter at the University of Pittsburgh was suspended in February after a hazing incident during which 12 pledges were allegedly forced to eat rotten food and were beaten with a wooden paddle in an off-campus basement.

According to a statement released by the University System of Georgia, the current investigation of the Fort Valley AKA chapter began with two complaints.

“On April 5, 2018, administrators from Fort Valley State University received two separate reports of alleged wrongdoing,” the statement said. “One report was made anonymously as a tip on a campus complaint hotline. The second report was made separately by an employee to the campus Title IX coordinator.”

The statewide system and Fort Valley immediately began investigating the allegations.

J.T. Ricketson, a special agent with the Georgia Bureau of Investigations, told the Journal-Constitution that his agency began a “wide-ranging inquiry” into possible crimes on April 12. Six days later, Johnson resigned from her position with the school.

“We haven’t confirmed any of the allegations that we have heard,” Ricketson told the paper. “The story is out in front of us, but we have to be very thorough, because there is a lot of stuff out there. I told my agents that there is a lot of street committee talk out there.”

On April 19, the chancellor of the University System of Georgia blasted Ricketson for providing a false timeline to the media on the events leading up the investigation. “Ricketson has from the moment he got on the case been talking to the media,” Chancellor Steve Wrigley said in a letter to GBI Director Vernon Keenan asking for Ricketson’s reassignment. “He has talked to more reporters than Fort Valley State University students and officials. Such behavior damages the quality, credibility and integrity of the investigation.”

The case has since been handed to an investigator who reports directly to the GBI’s deputy director, the Journal-Constitution reported.

But Johnson’s attorney remains adamant that his client will be found innocent.

“She’s been demonized by social media, but not one piece of evidence has shown what’s happening,” Patrick told the Atlanta paper.

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