Early in 2006, 18 students at Chapman University were looking forward to starting their own fraternity.
Pascal DeMaria and his best friend Cameron Clark recruited a strong group of potential members and were gearing up for the first fraternity expansion at the expensive private school in six years. School administrators listened to their plan and seemed open to the idea. They would start the first Jewish frat at Chapman, a chapter of Sigma Alpha Mu—a national fraternity known colloquially as the Sammy.
The students say they were told that if they went through the proper channels, they would be rewarded when expansion time came around in the fall. They had a lot going for them: They already had enough members to have a strong presence on campus, and they would be the first culturally based fraternity, which are staples at larger schools.
Now, about a year and a half later, Sigma Alpha Mu exists on the fringes of campus life. Not only did DeMaria, Clark and friends not get their charter, but they are also forbidden from advertising or holding social events with other fraternities and sororities. Just mentioning the fraternity's existence or affiliation with the school could get a member suspended. They've even been ordered to remove a group formed on the college social-networking website Facebook.
After their promising beginning, the Sammy saga at Chapman degenerated into a cacophony of accusations, admonishments and acrimony. The actions of one top school administrator toward the aspiring frat boys are the subject of a formal complaint made to the Department of Education, alleging a violation of federal student privacy laws.
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Before they made their application, the potential recruits had considered joining existing frats, but the fit wasn't right. On a small campus like Chapman—fewer than 5,000 undergraduates—everybody knows the reputations of the houses, and these men wanted something different.
"It's not like we just made this decision without looking at what was on campus already," DeMaria said.
When fraternity-expansion time came in the fall of 2006, Chapman had received 13 applications from other fraternities. None of them had a student presence on campus except Sigma Alpha Mu.
The other applications—from fraternities headquartered all over the country—amounted to prepackaged business plans, according to DeMaria and Clark.
Reassured by campus Greek-life associate director Chris Hutchinson they were practically a shoo-in, DeMaria and Clark say, the Sammy hopefuls focused their attention on their presentation to school administrators and other fraternity student leaders. But their chance to present their case never came.
Sigma Alpha Mu members were stunned when their group wasn't even considered in the final three. Phi Gamma Delta, a Kentucky-based fraternity, better known as Fiji, which sent a representative and had no student support on campus, was chosen.
"They knew we already existed," Clark said. "We've talked to all these guys, and then, for them not even include us in the final three, it was pretty much a slap in the face."
Hutchinson did not return numerous calls seeking comment for this story.
Chapman spokeswoman Mary Platt said the other applications were simply better; the fact that the group had a strong presence on campus was not considered.
"If that consideration were allowed, the expansion process would become circus-like, with every potential organization trying to drum up support and lobby for members before they are even approved," she wrote in an e-mail.
Sigma Alpha Mu expansion consultant Scott Resnick, who in 2006 oversaw the founding of six chapters in nine months, said only that Chapman was by far the most difficult to work with of any school he visited.
Refusing to accept defeat, the Chapman group continued to announce its presence on campus and attempted to recruit new members, DeMaria said. That's when one administrator decided to put them in the pillory.
Chapman Dean of Students Joe Kertes wrote a letter to the school's Sammy members and demanded they make the national headquarters of Sigma Alpha Mu, an organization with 80 chapters nationwide, write him personally disavowing any affiliation with them or Chapman. If Kertes' conditions weren't met, DeMaria, Clark and their cohorts "could be in violation of the Student Conduct Code for which you will personally be responsible," the letter said. The letter also stipulated the group could absolutely never meet on campus or intermingle with other Chapman-sanctioned Greeks.
Kertes then forwarded copies of the admonishing letter to other campus fraternity brothers and sorority sisters, who quickly spread the word that anyone affiliated with Sigma Alpha Mu was in the hot seat. With that letter, DeMaria said, sentiment among students went from supportive to antagonistic.
Letters to the campus newspaper railed against them, other frats let potential recruits know they could be suspended for joining Sigma Alpha Mu, and their peers generally assumed the most vocal members had one foot out the door at Chapman.
"I lost a whole bunch of friends because of it," DeMaria said. "People on campus, when they see me wearing my fraternity T-shirt, they look at me in disgust."
Kertes' public banishment spurred DeMaria to file a complaint in March against Chapman with the arm of the U.S. Department of Education that enforces the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA). Under FERPA, it is illegal for administrators to reveal the disciplinary records of students, or even potential disciplinary action, department spokesman Jim Bradshaw said. Thus Kertes' letter is a possible FERPA violation, according to Bradshaw.
"'Personally identifiable' is the phrase around which the whole world of FERPA swirls," he said. "It wouldn't necessarily have to be their name; anything that could tie a student to a record or incident could be an issue."
Kertes did not return repeated interview requests for this story.
Chapman breached FERPA once before, in 2002, according to Department of Education documents, when a student overheard a professor busting another student for plagiarism, the documents said. The incident resulted in Chapman faculty being forced to undergo additional FERPA training, the documents said.
But training aside, the top administrator at Chapman doesn't seem to pay the law much respect.
Chapman President James Doti, who declined a request to comment on this story, recently expressed his distaste for FERPA in an April 29 Op-Ed column in The Orange County Register. Doti said FERPA—which he described as "ham-fisted"—prevented Virginia Tech from foreseeing madman Cho Seung-Hui's murderous rampage last month. Doti's argument was that fewer restrictions on information sharing could help keep students safer.
For the members of Sigma Alpha Mu, being painted as a renegade band of outlaws hasn't stopped them from carrying on with their fraternity.
Bradshaw said the Department of Education responds to all complaints, but the process sometimes takes months because of a backlog. If Chapman is found to have breached the law, the school would probably only need to show it has done something to remedy the situation, like more training for faculty and staff. The department's ultimate punitive measure is to cut schools off from all federal funding, which includes student loans, but that measure has never been used, Bradshaw said.
DeMaria says that with 11 members remaining, the fraternity will continue next year, off campus. However, if the school waits six years to add another fraternity, all of those students will be gone. And even if the fraternity can hold out until the next round, there is no guarantee they will ever be recognized by Chapman.
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