After three women filed a highly publicized federal complaint against Swarthmore College in 2013 alleging that administrators mishandled their sexual-assault cases, the elite liberal arts school in Delaware County took decisive action. There were internal and external reviews, a handful of new hires, and umpteen policy and procedure revisions.

Still, six years later, the school made headlines again for its handling of campus sexual misconduct. This time, in April, it was after the Phi Psi fraternity’s purported internal documents were leaked — “meeting minutes” showing men there, between 2012 and 2016, had made jokes about sexual assault and referred to rooms in the neighboring frat as a “rape attic” and a “rape tunnel.” After national outrage and a five-day sit-in, both organizations voluntarily disbanded April 30.

Almost two weeks later, on Friday, the school’s president, Valerie Smith, announced in an online post to students: “Fraternities and sororities will no longer exist at the College.”

Activists celebrated, but many who said the behavior at those fraternities was an “open secret” still criticized school administrators, wondering: What took them so long?

Signs hang on the bulletin board at Parrish Hall, Swartmore College's administration building.
Anna Orso
Signs hang on the bulletin board at Parrish Hall, Swartmore College's administration building.

Greek life at Swarthmore

The houses, once occupied by Phi Psi, which was not nationally affiliated, and Delta Upsilon, which was, sit next to each other on Swarthmore’s campus, steps from the main dining hall. Constructed at the fraternities’ expense at the start of the last century, the houses came under college ownership several decades ago with a provision they’d be leased back to the groups that paid for them, school spokesperson Alisa Giardinelli said.

They’ve served more as clubhouses than residences. At Phi Psi, largely composed of members of the lacrosse team and their friends, just one member lived in the house.

The groups were a big part of the social scene, though. Of Swarthmore’s approximately 1,500 students, a couple hundred might have been partying at the fraternity houses on any given night — mostly first-years from Swarthmore and nearby Bryn Mawr and Haverford Colleges.

Anya Slepyan, a sophomore who advocated for the closure of the fraternities by joining a hunger strike, explained that freshmen at Swarthmore tend to be “self-contained,” particularly in the first semester.

“It’s this honeymoon period where you’re going to college parties, and everyone is so excited even though there are warning signs,” she said.

To have open parties in the houses, the fraternities obtained permits from the school. Events were patrolled by public safety officers, who don’t carry guns and can’t arrest, and monitored by the “SwatTeam,” a student-led organization that promotes safety at events with alcohol.

Students Hannah Stern Pait (left) and Sonia Linares outside Phi Psi in Swarthmore College as part of April's sit-in.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Students Hannah Stern Pait (left) and Sonia Linares outside Phi Psi in Swarthmore College as part of April's sit-in.

In a 2013 federal Title IX complaint alleging that the school mishandled their sexual-assault complaints over the previous four years, two female students alleged that they had been raped by men associated with Phi Psi and Delta Upsilon, setting off calls from activists then that Swarthmore stop leasing on-campus houses to the fraternities.

Morgin Goldberg, a senior who organized this year’s protests, says she told various administrators at least 20 times over her four years that the bedrooms and basements should be locked during parties, as she’d heard that women were sexually assaulted in them.

That sentiment is reinforced on a Tumblr page created this year by Swarthmore students. It includes dozens of anonymous stories recounting both old and recent experiences at Swarthmore fraternities, some of which describe sexual assault in those rooms.

Most current and former Phi Psi fraternity members have been publicly silent. Some have hidden their social-media profiles. Of dozens contacted by The Inquirer, none would speak on the record.

In a message to students, Smith said the school hadn’t identified any current students involved in the creation of the leaked documents or the specific behavior described.

Before it disbanded, the fraternity wrote on Facebook: "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 school’s response

Since the U.S. Department of Education in 2013 launched an investigation into the school, Swarthmore has taken more than 40 steps to improve sexual-misconduct reporting and response, Giardinelli said. In addition to the policy updates, the school created a “Title IX house,” where new coordinators and liaisons work. It beefed up sexual-assault prevention programming and facilitated consent workshops, including with fraternity members.

The school also changed how it adjudicates sexual-misconduct complaints, hiring third-party investigators, one of whom was retired state Supreme Court Justice Jane Greenspan.

The Title IX House on the campus of Swarthmore College.
Anna Orso
The Title IX House on the campus of Swarthmore College.

Since then, reports of sexual misconduct on campus have drastically increased, according to the school’s annual crime reports, something experts say can be a positive sign a school has a friendly reporting environment.

Then in 2018, the school, in response to student requests, decided to close and lock the single upstairs room in each fraternity house during events, Giardinelli said. But students who attended parties at the fraternity this year — although those who spoke to The Inquirer didn’t visit those rooms — said they weren’t aware the school had done so. The basements, which activists also deemed unsafe, were open.

Around the same time, a committee recommended that Smith consider a moratorium on fraternity leases while a new task force studied the issue further. (It was this task force’s eventual recommendation that led to Friday’s decision.) But then Smith declined to shut their doors, saying the school had “existing policies” for responding to allegations of misconduct.

“We were trying to trust students in their reporting that these were not safe spaces,” said Jeremy Seitz-Brown, a 2018 Swarthmore grad who sat on the committee. “In hindsight, a year or more of some of these issues could have been prevented.”

Students sings songs during April's sit-in to ban the fraternities.
JOSE F. MORENO / Staff Photographer
Students sings songs during April's sit-in to ban the fraternities.

Title IX, the federal civil rights law protecting people from discrimination based on sex in education, doesn’t explicitly require that a school close a physical space or disband an organization because there were multiple reports of sexual assault, according to Colby Bruno, senior legal counsel at the Victim Rights Law Center.

But, she said, it does require that schools “identify patterns, assess the culture, and make sure that if there are any patterns, that they basically break up the pattern.

“With a crime like rape and sexual assault, pattern, schmattern. You hear more than one [complaint] and you better be on them like white on rice.”

‘This isn’t about Swarthmore’

Swarthmore has hired Christine Wechsler, an attorney at Elliott Greenleaf and a former prosecutor who has conducted grand jury investigations, to review the leaked documents. The school hasn’t said how long the review will last.

Swarthmore Borough Police Chief Raymond Stufflet said no one has filed a report related to the documents and, having not seen an unredacted version of them, the department hasn’t launched an investigation.

Colleges have in recent years tried to rein in fraternities, particularly in Pennsylvania after high-profile examples of hazing. Harvard and Amherst College have ended single-gender organizations like fraternities and sororities in the last five years.

“We were participating in a national outcry,” said Mia Ferguson, one of the Swarthmore alumni who filed the 2013 complaint. "This isn’t about Swarthmore. Swarthmore isn’t the only institution that has Greek life that promotes really violent behaviors.”