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28 August 1998

Vol. II, No. 4

Feature Article

BU finds punishment for MIT frat incident doesn't fit the crime

By Eric McHenry

An MIT fraternity that has been a consistent source of frustration for the BU community has now frustrated BU's push to have its lodging license revoked. The Boston Licensing Board ruled on August 19 that Beta Theta Pi, located at 119 and 120 Bay State Road, must remain alcohol-free for three years because of a July 18 roof deck party that resulted in a severe injury to a BU police officer. The three-member board placed various additional sanctions on the fraternity, but stopped short of shutting it down.

Kevin Carleton, director of public relations for BU, says the board's judgment is not commensurate with the offense and therefore disappointing.

"When you take away a liquor license from a student residence where most of the people are under 21, you're simply reminding them of the law," Carleton says. "That's no significant punishment."

In testimony before the board on August 18, representatives of the BU Police Department reported being pelted with full beer cans and bottles early on the morning of July 18. Officer James Berry said he ruptured a disk in his neck when twisting to dodge a thrown bottle. Berry testified in a cervical collar he said he'd been forced to wear since undergoing surgery for the injury three weeks before the hearing. Berry will probably not be able to return to duty, according to testimony by BU Deputy Chief Enrico Cappucci.

The confrontation was initiated by party-goers, who from the roof of 119 Bay State Road began throwing full beer cans at the car of a BU police officer on routine patrol. Several BU and Boston police officers converged on the fraternity, ultimately arresting one nonmember for disorderly conduct and confiscating several illegal items, including an implement for smoking marijuana and a stolen city parking meter. One fraternity member, James Williams, was subsequently arrested and is awaiting trial on charges related to the bottle-throwing.

BU representatives told the board that the University feels hamstrung by the presence of the fraternity, which has until now been outside the jurisdiction of MIT police.

"This fraternity house for many years now has been a constant threat to the neighborhood," said Cappucci, who submitted to the board a record of recent police encounters with Beta Theta Pi. "We've answered numerous calls for disturbances, for loud parties, and even for breaking and entering . . . buildings adjoining the frat house. We come here with our hats in our hands, in total frustration."

Cappucci's sentiments were echoed by Richard Towle, BU vice president of administrative services, and Herb Walsh, treasurer of the Bay State Road Neighborhood Association.

Three fraternity members and their counsel countered that both the July 18 party and the resulting fracas had been instigated by summer boarders and their guests, affiliated with neither Beta Theta Pi nor MIT. Summer boarders at 119 Bay State Road outnumber fraternity members 24 to 5, they said. The members also claimed to have been unaware of the roof party until shortly before the confrontation with police took place. While accepting responsibility for mismanagement of the house, they suggested that appropriate preventive and punitive measures -- such as a $1,000 fine, compulsory community service for members, and a new policy requiring full-time resident assistants in all Greek houses -- were being taken by MIT and its Interfraternity Council.

Speaking on behalf of MIT, Student Dean Rosalind Williams expressed "outrage" at the incident. She called Officer Berry's injury "a tragedy," pledged "to the BU Police Department our help in finding out who's responsible," and delineated MIT's disciplinary response. She went on to assert that MIT had received very few complaints from BU about the fraternity before July 18.

Commissioner Daniel Pokaski commended BU for the aggressive alcohol-control policies enforced on its campus, but expressed regret that only one prior incident associated with Beta Theta Pi -- the 1994 alcohol-related hospitalization of an underage female BU student -- had been brought to the attention of the licensing board.

Such remarks, says Carleton, amount to "blaming the victim."

"Most of the incidents in the past have not approached this level of seriousness, so we haven't gone to the licensing board," he says. "But we certainly have gone to MIT, and they have consistently brushed our complaints aside."

In an interview, Towle cited a history of communication at several levels -- between the BU and MIT police departments, between BU's office of government relations and the MIT dean's office, and between provosts.

"Dean Williams claimed to have been aware of only one piece of communication, sent three or four years ago," Towle said. "But in that instance our provost was writing to their provost. Now obviously about a dozen phone calls have to be made before it rises to that level. Their position that we have not been contacting them is preposterous."

In cross-examining those who testified on August 18, all three licensing board commissioners expressed skepticism regarding the fraternity members' account of the incident. Commissioner Joseph Mulligan promised outright that he would vote to revoke the fraternity's license.

"Here is a university that had one of its own die of alcohol ingestion just a short time ago," said Mulligan, referring to the September 1997 death of MIT freshman Scott Krueger, "and it doesn't even have a police force with jurisdiction over its own house. They don't get it. They really don't get it, and I think this board will send them a message they will get."

Carleton says he is dismayed that the Institute's and fraternity's gestures of contrition seem to have appeased the board's other two members.

"The thing that I found so surprising was that Chairwoman [Ellen] Rooney called their story 'bizarre' and asked, 'How can you expect us to believe that?'" Carleton says. "She did everything except say, 'You're liars.' And yet she didn't care about that, apparently. The fact that they showed up and acted contrite seemed to be sufficient for her.

"The common sentiment after the Krueger death was, 'Why do we have to wait until someone dies before taking action?'" he adds. "Well, this was not a death. This was a serious injury, a step before a death. And yet it wasn't enough to prompt removal of the license. That is astounding."

Along with the alcohol ban, the board stipulated that the fraternity's roof deck must be dismantled within 30 days, that the MIT police department must seek to have its jurisdiction extended to cover the Institute's Boston fraternities, and that representatives of the MIT administration must meet with BU officials and neighborhood groups within 30 days for dialogue about fraternity problems.