How safe do Minnesotans feel at frat parties?

empty bottles

In light of this fall’s sexual assault cases at three University of Minnesota fraternities, I recently I asked members of our Public Insight Network about how safe they felt at fraternity parties — and how comfortable they would be if a young family member attended.

It’s not a scientific survey, of course.

But here’s the picture I got: One of unease, particularly about fraternity parties — but also about any large college party where there’s lots of drinking. Women expressed worries over reckless drunken behavior, pressure to binge drink, sexual aggressiveness — usually in the form of persistent unwanted sexual advances — and the use of date rape drugs. A couple of minorities felt particularly uncomfortable, citing bullying as the main concern.

Most women who responded had reservations about attending parties, saying they felt “not very safe” or “not safe at all,” and said they might be “a little concerned” if a young family member went to a party — or would advise him or her not to go.

A number of respondents who said they, or someone they know, had witnessed belligerent drunken behavior, including:

  • Persistent unwanted sexual advances
  • Property damage
  • Pressure on women to drink
  • Binge drinking and alcohol poisoning
  • Verbal and physical harassment of gay and minority students
  • Sexual assault

But several people noted that fraternities themselves aren’t filled with students any different from those anywhere else. It was the group dynamic in a fraternity — an us-versus-them mentality mixed with bravado and a permissive atmosphere — that creates problems not found at other student parties, they said..

In any case, most seemed to feel that the issue of binge drinking and sexual assaults — in fraternities as well as everywhere else in college — is underreported.

Adam Robbins of Minneapolis gives a view of what it’s like to ride through a fraternity neighborhood during party time:

I live in the Stadium Village neighbor near the U of M campus. I frequently ride my bike along University Ave and other streets where fraternities are located. Often young people are rambling between the houses, males or females in groups of two or three. From an outsider’s perspective, student intoxication is the biggest safety concern. The potential for bad judgment is high.

The picture inside looks more troubling. Nancy Johnson, an Edina parent in her mid-50s, wrote:

… One child was slipped something in her drink and she was assaulted. Another got alcohol poisoning. Another went out to her car to “sleep it off” and was raped.

Rosie Palan, Minneapolis college grad in her late 20s-early 30s, said:

I had two friends who were victims of sexual assaults at frat parties. They did not report the incidents because they were worried about their reputations.

Minorities — either due to sexual orientation or ethnic background — said they don’t feel safe. T. Day, a college employee in his early 60s, said:

Several times, I’ve been with minority friends who were harassed and, even, threatened by frat brats.

Many of the problems stem from the group dynamic, which Eric Gustafson of St. Paul, a parent, alumnus and college employee, zeroed in on:

The group mentality and the allegiance it instills in its members results in behavior toward others that individuals would not do nor condone in isolation.

But the problems of binge drinking and sexual assault aren’t just a fraternity problem, a number of people said. Jill Johnson, a college alumna in her mid-40s from Vadnais Heights, echoed a number of responses:

I don’t know if you can really blame frats. It’s just as bad in the general student population, but frats give a concentrated version. Frats appear to condone, even encourage, binge drinking, which is what can lead to the major problems. …  Frats aren’t really the problem, binge drinking is the problem.

And as Northfield’s Anna Hagemeister, a college employee in her mid-40s said:

… There have in all likelihood been 100’s more of these situations across the state since school began 2 months ago. Talk to the campus sexual assault programs. They will tell you.