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Dartmouth roiled, again, by student insensitivity

HANOVER, N.H. — The e-mail invitation sent out the night of July 26 was short.

“Midnight,” it read. “Bloods and Crips Party.”

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More than 200 came that night to the green-shuttered, brick Alpha Delta fraternity house that stands in the heart of Dartmouth College’s campus — the fraternity memorialized in the 1978 film “National Lampoon’s Animal House.”

The party, whose theme invoked two infamous South Central Los Angeles street gangs, took a disturbing — and, for Dartmouth, disturbingly familiar — twist.

“It then turned into a ‘ghetto party,’ with racialized language, speech, and dress,” Jordan Terry, a Dartmouth sophomore and president of the college’s NAACP chapter, wrote in an e-mail to college leaders.

Administrators decried the actions of guests at the party. The fraternity acknowledged behavior that was “insensitive and thoughtless.” And a bucolic campus was left again to ponder how it had wound up here, in the spotlight for students gone rogue.

“Incidents such as this, which violate our sense of community and mutual respect, have no place on our campus,” Dartmouth administrators said in a prepared statement last week.

The college said that the student-run Greek Leadership Council was discussing adoption of a new policy for themed parties “that better reflects the Greek community’s commitment to hosting inclusive events.”

But officials, who did not return calls for comment last week, have not offered details on how such policies would correct a widely acknowledged and intractable pattern of bad behavior from fraternities and sororities.

Tri Delta sorority, which cohosted the party, also issued an apology and has been put under investigative probation by the national executive office of the sorority, according to spokeswoman Holly Thompson.

In 1998, Dartmouth was hit by revelations of another “ghetto party” thrown by the school’s Chi Gamma Epsilon fraternity and Alpha Xi Delta sorority in which white students dressed as rap artists and some wore Afro wigs and carried toy guns, according to media reports at the time.

More recently, the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity was implicated in hazing episodes that included a slosh through a kiddie pool of apparently feculent sludge and a meal of an omelet with regurgitated filling.

Dartmouth sophomore Troy Donahue, 20, of Colorado, said last week that Alpha Delta has been in “hot water” since January, when the fraternity was charged with providing alcohol to minors after several prior alcohol-related warnings from Hanover police.

Earlier in July, one male student was arrested for urinating from Alpha Delta’s second-floor balcony onto a woman below.

But Donahue said he did not think the brothers of Alpha Delta “meant harm” with their Crips and Bloods party. “I definitely see why it’s offensive for a majority-white frat to play on that stereotype though,” he said.

“They just weren’t thinking about who it might affect,” said sophomore Kelsey Stimson of Santa Barbara, Calif. “It was poor decision-making . . . a lack of awareness.”

Other students expressed private outrage at yet another racially tinged instance in a long pattern of questionable judgment calls made by students in Dartmouth’s Greek culture.

Many were afraid to comment without anonymity on a secluded, tight-knit campus where everyone knows one another — especially now, when the sophomore class lives together during a traditional academic summer quarter.

Alpha Delta “is always doing things people would think is inappropriate,” said one sophomore who comes from an urban neighborhood where real Crips and Bloods gang members walk the streets. Some of those gang members were friends.

“I understand [Alpha Delta’s] fascination, because gangs are literal brotherhoods,” the student said. “But I doubt any of the guys in [Alpha Delta] have seen anything dangerous in their whole lives. For them, being a gangster is a fascination of being above the law.”

“For me, having seen the real thing, it’s extremely offputting,” the student added. “I used to not be able to wear certain colors on certain streets.”

According to the college’s admission statistics, 36.4 percent of Dartmouth students are of African-American, Hispanic, Asian, or mixed-race descent.

Alpha Delta issued a statement apologizing for the themed party and promising to learn from the episode.

“While there was never any ill intent in the party’s theme, the brothers of Alpha Delta now realize that it was insensitive and thoughtless to make light of a very serious issue that affects many people nationwide,” the fraternity wrote. “We have gained a greater appreciation for the very real effect gang violence has on members of the Dartmouth community, and the conversation has opened our eyes to a subject which we had never before fully comprehended.”

Dartmouth’s Webster Avenue, which houses most of the college’s Greek houses, lit up with activity as midnight approached Wednesday, music turned up loud and porch lights beaming as students went to weekly chapter meetings and after-parties.

But Alpha Delta’s House on East Wheelock Street remained quiet. Dodge balls were strewn on its front lawn, and clothes hung over its empty front balcony.

Almost all nights, Donahue said, parties stay in the realm of the whimsical. He listed some of the recent costume themes at his own fraternity, Gamma Delta Xi: For Shark Week, guests dressed as aquatic animals, and for Slumber Party, pajamas were the dress of choice.

“I’ve never heard of anything like Crips and Bloods happening before,” he said.

The “ghetto party” of 1998 sparked a national uproar and a flurry of discussion at the college about campus culture. But memory of that party has not been enough to quell a repeat.

Dartmouth alumnus Joseph Asch, who wrote about the Crips and Bloods party on the independently run DartBlog, said stricter and more sustained supervision of Greek life by college administrators was badly needed.

“There’s been a lot of turnover [of staff] in the Dean of the College and other offices . . . and fraternities have been left somewhat to their own devices,” Asch said. “It’s become a bit of a ‘Lord of the Flies’ situation.”

Dartmouth’s new president, Philip J. Hanlon, is an Alpha Delta alumnus who took office June 10.

“It will be interesting to see how president Hanlon deals with this, given that this is the first crisis that’s appeared on his watch,” Asch said.

On Thursday, the Dartmouth NAACP chapter, the Afro-American Society, Women of Color Collective, and La Alianza Latina sent a joint call for action to students, urging them to report the party as a bias incident to the college’s Judicial Affairs Office.

Students upset about the party but reluctant to speak out said the call for action from those groups represented a brave effort on a campus where college pride and solidarity are paramount.

“If you challenge the college in any way you get a huge backlash from your peers,” said the student, who grew up in a gang-heavy neighborhood.

And at Dartmouth, nestled out of the way in New Hampshire’s secluded rolling hills, that kind of alienation can make for a difficult four years.

“This school is our life,” the student said. “There’s not much else in this town.”

Alyssa Botelho can be reached at alyssa.botelho@globe.com.
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