When a Miami Ohio university student told Oxford police she was dropping her criminal rape charges against Beta Theta Pi members, the fraternity thought UCF would drop its corresponding sexual misconduct case against Beta.

They were wrong.

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And it soon became clear the public relations and legal nightmare over the UCF fraternity’s traditional fall 2008 initiation trip would plague both UCF and Beta for quite some time.

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Now, Beta Theta Pi is in a fight for its life – and whether the fraternity lives or dies could change how every UCF organization and individual is disciplined on campus forever.

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In spring, UCF’s Office of Student Conduct found Beta Theta Pi in violation of sexual and other misconduct and suspended the fraternity, known for producing leaders across campus, for two years.

After the university suspended the chapter, the fraternity took the unusual step in June of filing a lawsuit against UCF, claiming it was treated unfairly and there was no evidence to support the allegations of sexual misconduct against the fraternity.

But the suit goes beyond just that – it claims UCF has no jurisdiction to enforce its governing Golden Rule because the Florida Board of Governors, which oversees the state university system, failed to enact the necessary legislation granting UCF that authority.

In other words, the suit calls into question the legality of the university’s entire Office of Student Conduct – responsible for suspending and expelling students – and therefore, all of its previous rulings.

This specific legal challenge raises serious questions:

Would other fraternities recently ousted by OSC, like Sigma Alpha Epsilon, Sigma Phi Epsilon and Pi Kappa Phi, be allowed back on campus if a judge sides with Beta?

Could it open the door for Sigma Phi Epsilon and Sigma Alpha Epsilon to sue to reclaim their former houses UCF recently took ownership of and leased out to new groups?

And would the Office of Student Conduct’s verdicts stand for students expelled for cheating, theft, DUI or violence?

How the lawsuit plays out could influence the answers to those questions through the landmark precedent the outcome could set for all UCF conduct cases.

For its part, UCF stands by the way it handled Beta’s suspension.

“UCF followed its procedures in conducting a disciplinary review of Beta Theta Pi,” UCF Spokesman Grant Heston said in a statement to KnightNews.com.

“While there is a disagreement between UCF and the fraternity over the nature of organizational responsibility, the university adheres to the requirement that an organization be responsible for the actions of its members and guests at organization-sponsored events,” Heston’s statement said.

RAISING THE STAKES

The suit raises the stakes in a long battle between UCF administrators and student groups over the less restrictive “more likely than not” burden of proof it uses when deciding the fate of students and organizations, and how it routinely holds an entire student organization responsible for the actions of a collection of its members or guests.

The lawsuit could prove very costly for both the fraternity and university during a budget crisis that already forced UCF to shed academic programs and jobs.

Beta’s willingness to fight UCF in court, and the nearly 2,000 member facebook group supporting the fraternity’s fight, sends a clear message that it could cost UCF precious money whenever it wants to shut an entire student organization down.

Beta is enjoying plenty of support. The fraternity set up a donation link on its Web site, UCFBeta.com, and has already collected tens of thousands of dollars to finance its legal fight against UCF.

The fraternity is also sending a message that there could be severe financial consequences for university staff making allegations against them.

Beta confirmed it plans to sue six UCF employees involved in its suspension for an undisclosed amount of money in a statement released to KnightNews.com:

“In addition to appealing the University’s decision and sanctions, the Fraternity also is preparing to file civil lawsuits against the University and six individuals employed by the school, demanding compensation for damages. The Fraternity says that these legal actions are similar to those currently pending on behalf of the Duke lacrosse team players.

“Although Duke entered into settlements with the players who were indicted and then were found to be innocent, the other players on the team whose season was cancelled after the false allegations have also sued that school for millions of dollars in damages.”

STUDENT CONDUCT SPEAKS OUT

In an unprecedented move, one student member of the conduct panel that found Beta in violation of sexual misconduct broke the usually tight-lipped office’s silence by publishing a letter in a local publication earlier this year.

Panel member Mark Singer wrote that he found Beta in violation of sexual misconduct because it was the panel’s opinion that one of Beta’s alumni along for the trip committed sexual misconduct against the unnamed female Ohio student.

“We believe he had sexual relations with a female who was unable to consent due to the amount of alcohol she consumed,” Singer wrote. “That alumnus was on their list to attend their initiation in Ohio that November.”

Even though that alumnus was not a current student and not an active member of Beta, Singer wrote, “This alumnus was a guest of the fraternity’s and therefore the fraternity is responsible for his actions.”

Singer went on to say that because that alumnus wasn’t a UCF student, he couldn’t be brought to student conduct. He then placed the blame on the fraternity as a whole.

“It is our belief that members of the fraternity knew this incident was going on, were in the rooms condoning or encouraging violations of university policy, and had the responsibility to stop those actions; however, they did not,” Singer wrote.

BETA QUESTIONS WOMAN’S CREDIBILITY, OSC’S ACTIONS

But Beta’s statement raises serious questions about the female accuser’s credibility.

“In her statement, the Ohio woman originally claimed that approximately 15 students in the Fraternity had sex with her while she was intoxicated … the woman subsequently changed her story and admitted that she remembered having sex with only one person a man (also allegedly intoxicated) who was not a UCF student,” Beta wrote in its statement to KnightNews.com.

Beta’s statement to KnightNews.com went on to say that because no individual fraternity members were found to have committed any Golden Rule violations, it doesn’t make sense that the entire fraternity should take the blame.

“The Fraternity argues that this policy leads to illogical and unintended results that create an extremely bad precedent for UCF and all campus organizations—for example if this incident had occurred at the woman’s sorority house, the Fraternity argues that UCF’s reasoning would require that the entire sorority be held responsible and suspended as well,” the statement read.

“If someone were to break into an organization’s office and commit a theft, that group would be held responsible and sanctioned because the misconduct occurred on their premises,” the statement continued.

BETA’S STRATEGY TO SURVIVE

Beta is enjoying unusually strong support from its national office which, according to Beta, refused UCF’s recommendation that it join with the university in suspending the fraternity’s operations.

“Therefore, the chapter will continue to operate during its suspension, although it will not be affiliated with the school during that time,” according to Beta’s statement.

In addition to the suit which seeks to have UCF’s suspension of Beta overturned, the fraternity said it filed an motion to stay in court, which if granted, would force UCF to continue allowing Beta to recruit and operate normally while the main appeal plays out in the Fifth District Court of Appeals.

According to Beta’s statement, UCF and the fraternity were ordered to initiate a mediation by Aug. 7 in order to try and settle their differences out of court. The outcome of the mediation was not yet available. However, it was not expected it would resolve the dispute.

KnightNews.com will follow this developing story closely and bring updates throughout the case, including whether Beta will be allowed on campus for fall fraternity recruitment, which is just a few weeks away.

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