Fraternities across U.S. under fire after series of scandals involving racism, hazing, sexual assault

People walk on the Oval at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., Tuesday, March 10, 2015. Two students have been expelled from the university following an incident in which members of a fraternity were caught on video chanting a racial slur. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)

Racist chants. Nude photos of unconscious women. A criminal investigation into hazing. Fraternities around the country seem to be coming under fire as never before over behavior that would shock the frat boys of "Animal House."

Despite a major national push to reduce drinking and sexual assault on campus and increase diversity, some fraternity chapters have failed to clean up their acts. Universities and the fraternities' national offices are quickly punishing the offenders amid more promises of reform.

Some critics blame popular culture, saying it's making fraternities essentially ungovernable.

"There's this underlying acceptance that boys will be boys, this is fraternity life and this is what you have to accept when you walk through the doors of a fraternity," Ellen Kramer, legal director of the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Domestic Violence, said last week.

photo Students walk through the Warren College and Moore College area at Vanderbilt University on Tuesday, Feb. 24, 2015, in Nashville.

Defenders of fraternities say they do a lot of good work on campus and the focus on their misconduct is misguided.

Bad behavior inside the walls of a frat house -- or on campus generally -- is nothing new, of course. Alcohol, immaturity and freedom from parents have been a potentially troublesome combination for generations of undergrads.

But the incidents at the University of Oklahoma and Penn State, in particular, have stunned many and happened despite heavy scrutiny of misconduct at colleges.

At the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, students and administrators say the culture is different.

Jadon Thomas, a sophomore and member of Sigma Chi, said his experience in a fraternity has been positive. He has not picked up on traces of racism and said there is not much of a party culture.

"I think a lot of people are stereotypical about frats," he said. "People don't truly know what we stand for."

There was brief tension last week over T-shirts distributed months ago by the Lambda Chi Alpha fraternity at UTC. The shirts had an image of cotton on the back, and used the phrase, "History repeats itself."

Thomas said he initially didn't see the shirts as racist, but he now understands why some students may have been concerned.

UTC spokesman Chuck Cantrell said the shirt was supposed to signal the frat's intention to secure the "Frat of the Year" designation for the second year in a row.

But he said a few students complained, saying the shirts were inappropriate, and Lambda Chi Alpha voluntarily asked people to return them.

"They were cooperative and wanted to do the right thing," Cantrell said. "We are trying to approach it as a teaching opportunity instead of a punitive moment."

At Penn State, police are investigating allegations members of Kappa Delta Rho used a private Facebook page to post photos of nude and partly nude women, some apparently asleep or passed out. A former member told police the invitation-only page was used to share photos of "unsuspecting victims, drug sales and hazing," according to court documents.

The Facebook posts were "very sad and very offensive," Penn State President Eric Barron said, adding that students could be expelled. Referring to Penn State's fraternity system, Barron added: "It's just unfortunately a large system with some very fine young men and some men who are not doing smart things."

The page came to light nearly a week after a University of Oklahoma fraternity was shut down when members were caught on video singing a racist song. The university expelled two students identified as ringleaders. Sigma Alpha Epsilon disbanded its OU chapter and announced Wednesday it will require all its members nationwide to go through diversity training.

photo Students walk to class on the campus of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga in this Nov. 12, 2014, photo.

"We are focused on trying to determine the root of this song or this chant, where it came from, that's our primary focus," said Blaine Ayers, executive director of SAE, adding he was disgusted and embarrassed by the video.

At the University of Houston, officials promised expulsion and criminal charges pending the outcome of a police investigation into hazing allegations.

And Sigma Alpha Mu said its chapter at the University of Michigan will be disbanded after some of its members helped trash two ski resorts during an alcohol-fueled weekend, causing hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage.

Why do the problems persist?

"That's a legitimate question," said Peter Smithhisler, president of the North-American Interfraternity Conference. "My response is that when fraternities are made aware of behaviors inconsistent with their policies or values, they are swift to action, and individual chapters are held accountable when appropriate."

Smithhisler's group has created three commissions to study hazing, drinking and sexual assault and come up with recommendations for fraternities. The study groups have yet to complete their work.

Allison Tombros Korman, executive director of Culture of Respect, a group formed in October to prevent sexual assaults, said fraternities and universities can drastically reduce problems by targeting campus "social influencers" -- fraternity presidents, athletes and other campus leaders -- who set the tone for their organizations.

"I don't think it's an impossible task at all. I don't want to sell young people short. I think they are capable of making good choices and moving away from these types of behaviors," she said.

Staff writer Kendi Anderson contributed to this report.