‘Nerves are raw’ on NU campus after drugging, sex-assault reports

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Northwestern University’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity has been ordered by its parent organization to stop all social activities. | Stefano Esposito/Sun-Times

A day after alerting students that women might have been drugged and sexually assaulted at fraternity parties in recent weeks, Northwestern University officials asked for tips to aid their investigation as some students and faculty questioned the timeliness of the university notifying the campus community.

Vice President for Student Affairs Patricia Telles-Irvin said in a statement Tuesday that “the university had received anonymous reports of sexual assault involving the use of date-rape drugs in two of our fraternities.”

No victims had yet come forward, and the university had been made aware of the assaults from “third parties,” NU spokesman Storer Rowley said.

On Monday evening, Northwestern announced on its website that the school had received reports on Thursday, Feb. 2, that four women had been drugged at the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity house on Jan. 21 — and that another woman had reported being drugged at an unnamed fraternity on Friday. Two of the women who were drugged at Sigma Alpha Epsilon also reported being sexually assaulted.

As the allegations reverberated around NU’s Evanston campus, some students and faculty questioned whether the university should have notified students more quickly.

Northwestern sociology professor Laura Beth Nielsen said that rumors about the assaults had been swirling on campus for weeks, and that students — including leaders of the campus’ Pan-Hellenic Council, an organization made up of leaders of local sorority chapters — had been pressuring the administration to act.

“I know that the students are very upset about it,” Nielsen said.

“Nerves are raw right now,” she added. “But you have to be able to solve this problem and have a process in place. What does the university do when it gets information about dangerous things happening on campus?”

Sorority member Lindsay Wilson, 18, said she began hearing the reports of alleged misconduct at Sigma Alpha Epsilon about a week ago.

“We had a philanthropy event with them and cancelled it and did it on our own,” she said. “I’ve never felt unsafe here [on campus] before, but I guess now it makes you wonder.”

Northwestern student Molly Benedict, executive director of the campus’ Sexual Health and Assault Peer Educators group, also said students had heard rumors about the Jan. 21 assaults well-before the university issued its alert on Monday. Still, she praised Northwestern for going public.

“People knew about it before the university release was put out . . . and I don’t know if the university was very timely,” said Benedict, adding that she herself had heard about the matter last Wednesday. “(The alert) is essential and important, and I’m hoping that the university will really take action.”

Benedict also said that anonymous complaints are not unusual, given the furor that such allegations can create on campus. “I’m concerned for these survivors. I know it’s difficult to have your story broadcast around the campus,” she said.

In her statement, Telles-Irvin pledged that NU officials will get to the bottom of things.

“Northwestern University condemns any such conduct in the strongest possible terms and expeditiously is investigating these charges,” Telles-Irvin said. “They go against Northwestern values and constitute grossly unacceptable behavior.”

Telles-Irvin’s statement urged “anyone with relevant information” to contact university police or the Title IX gender-equity coordinator. She also said victims of sexual assault can contact the school’s Center for Awareness, Response and Education, or Counseling and Psychological Services office.

University officials didn’t respond to questions about the timeliness of the campus alert, which was still stripped across the top of the university’s website on Tuesday evening. They also didn’t respond to questions about whether Sigma Alpha Epsilon had been sanctioned as a result of the anonymous complaints, nor to inquiries about the name of the fraternity where a woman claimed to have been drugged on Feb. 3.

The Evanston Police Department doesn’t investigate crimes reported on the Northwestern campus, but it had been alerted to the anonymous allegations by Northwestern’s police force, Evanston police spokesman Cmdr. Joe Dugan said Tuesday. The Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office has not been contacted by Northwestern police about the allegations, spokeswoman Tandra Siminton said.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon, known by the initials SAE, is the largest fraternity in the U.S., with more than 200 chapters nationwide. SAE’s national fraternity headquarters is located in Evanston.Northwestern chapter President Manos Proussaloglou said that the fraternity was cooperating with an investigation by the university and that national organization. “Our Northwestern chapter of SAE is appalled and deeply concerned by the recent allegations of drug abuse and sexual assault,” he said.

Sixteen instances of criminal sexual assault, abuse and battery have been reported to Northwestern police since February 2016, according to records the department made public. The address where each incident occurred, though, is not divulged. The “disposition” of every case is labeled as “closed.”

Campus police departments of private colleges and universities in Illinois — such as the University of Chicago, Northwestern, Loyola and DePaul universities — are not subject to disclosing records to the public under the Freedom of Information Act.

In 2015, a bill was introduced in the Illinois General Assembly to make campus police departments of private colleges and universities subject to the open-records law. It passed in the House in April 2015 but was referred to the Senate’s Assignments Committee six months later and has not been brought to a vote.

Contributing: Rummana Hussain

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