By Maureen McMullen
MSUM sorority Gamma Phi was placed on university disciplinary probation following an investigation of hazing complaints filed by former member Sheridan Tihista.
The investigation was conducted by the Student Organization Advisory Committee (SOAC), which is comprised of a student panel and Steve Fox, interim assistant director of leadership and organizations.
Though the panel found evidence of bullying within the chapter, they concluded the behavior did not fit the university’s definition of hazing.
“SOAC felt that much of the correspondence that happened was between two individuals through texting, individual conversations, and Facebook direct messaging,” Fox wrote in a report of the investigation. “They did not feel that it reached a level of ‘public humiliation or ridicule,’ but was more considered to be bullying and cyber-bullying.”
According to an Oct. 16 article in The Forum, Tihista said the bullying began when a freshman girl she mentored sent out a tweet that upset members of the sorority.
The sorority disciplined the girl, but Tihista said she continued to receive backlash from the other sorority members.
In her blog, Tihista wrote that other members of the sorority started bullying her after she was crowned Miss Montana 2013, creating a hashtag on twitter to “#voteno” on her membership in the sorority.
“The president of this current year, our chapter advisor, and apparently 90 percent of my sisterhood was determined to discontinue my membership,” Sheridan wrote. “90 percent is a legitimate figure I was given as to how many people despised my guts.”
In his report, Fox wrote that a member of the sorority had “bullied others in the organization and it wasn’t until she was on the receiving end of the bullying that she realized that the actions she had previously done were wrong.
“SOAC overwhelmingly felt that a lack of communication happened on multiple levels between the two parties and within the organization,” Fox wrote. “SOAC also felt there was some fault on both parties in terms of how the situation was handled and that has had an emotional impact on all involved.”
Other members of the sorority declined to comment, citing restrictions imposed by the organization’s administration.
Though SOAC determined hazing had not occurred within the chapter, they did find evidence of bullying behavior that violated student conduct and policies outlined in the student organization handbook.
The violations cited in the report include “Disorderly, Lewd or Indecent Conduct” and failure to adhere to the university’s published policies.
“Whenever a formal complaint is filed, the university immediately activates its processes for investigating that complaint,” President Anne Blackhurst said. “We take all complaints like this very seriously.”
In response to the violations, SOAC issued three sanctions for the sorority, including the three-year university disciplinary probation period, during which any further violations will result in more severe punishment.
Vice President of Enrollment and Student Affairs Yvette Underdue Murph denied an Oct. 7 appeal from the sorority, upholding SOAC’s original sanctions.
In order to proceed with recruitment processes for fall 2014, the sorority must review their policies and procedures and submit a report of their evaluation.
“What we’re asking this group to do is think about how they communicate amongst themselves, particularly in situations where there’s conflict,” said David Wahlberg, MSUM director of communications. “There’s going to be conflict in any organization, but how do you handle that? Are you handling that in a productive manner that later on you can look back and say, ‘I’m glad we had that tough conversation and it worked out for the better.’”
The sorority must also research how other organizations address issues like social media use and cyberbullying, develop an education program with staff for future members, and develop a plan for addressing similar situations in the future.
“We hope that through those actions, it sends a message to everyone across campus that this is what is acceptable and this is what is not acceptable, and this is how you make change,” said Wahlberg.
“People make mistakes, people get caught up; our interest is to help people reflect on that and change behaviors that led to the problem. We’re optimistic that we’ve done that.”