Thriving underground: The 16-year story of Epsilon Iota, AU’s unrecognized fraternity
Inside AU's notorious underground fraternity
When Alpha Tau Omega first forfeited their national charter and restructured under the name of Epsilon Iota, Benjamin Ladner was AU’s president, Katzen Arts Center didn’t exist and the Founder’s Day Ball was held at the Old Post Office Pavilion.
Things have changed since then for the University, and for EI. On Aug. 28, American University expelled 18 members of the now underground fraternity, placing another on disciplinary probation. A group often labeled as violent, Epsilon Iota has now roamed AU’s campus for more than 16 years.
"This group has perpetuated and systematically presented a threat to the safety and well-being of our students," said Fanta Aw, vice president of campus life, when announcing the students’ expulsion. "This should send a strong message to anyone involved with groups engaged in activities prohibited by the Conduct Code.”
A 16-year history
The history of Epsilon Iota’s 16-year reign as AU’s underground fraternity is long -- four times longer than the time most students spend earning their degrees. As seniors graduate and incoming freshmen take their place, the institutional memory of EI’s history can get muddled or even lost, potentially contributing to the group’s ability to sustain itself for well over a decade.
The group, which was colonized as a chapter of Alpha Tau Omega at AU in 1943, lost its national charter in 2000 and university recognition in February 2001 for consistent hazing and alcohol violations of the student conduct code.
As early as 2003, the University warned students to avoid EI and another unrecognized fraternity, Sigma Alpha Mu, because the “underground organizations” placed students at physical and emotional risk as well as possible University judicial prosecution, The Eagle reported at the time. Sigma Alpha Mu has since recolonized and is recognized by AU’s Interfraternity Council.
GRAPHIC BY JENNIFER CRONEY/THE EAGLE
“Some students become involved because they don’t realize the University revoked their recognition,” then-Greek Life coordinator Danny Kelley told The Eagle in July 2003. “It’s becoming more obvious than in the past that [the organizations] are not doing a good job disguising themselves … it will be easier to identify them and take judicial action.”
But Epsilon Iota continued to function, recruiting new members, throwing parties and earning the ire of recognized fraternities on campus. In 2006, the Interfraternity Council, a group of fraternity leaders that represents the interests of social fraternities at AU, issued a resolution demanding that other members of the Greek community not attend or invite members of the unrecognized groups to Greek functions.
In addition, the Dean of Students office announced that it had hired a former prosecutor and federal judge for recommendations on how to remove the groups from campus. EI members and alumni at the time said that the University’s campaign to warn students against attending their parties had the opposite effect.
“One poster says EI is hazardous to your health,” EI alumnus Hernando Cano told The Eagle in 2006. “The signs actually helped. People come and say [they] saw the signs and wanted to go to [our] parties.”
From 2007 to 2013, Epsilon Iota was rarely mentioned in The Eagle, earning only two mentions in six years. That all changed in 2014, when three students, including two EI members, allegedly attempted to run another AU student over with a car in the Nebraska Hall parking lot.
After following the student, Alex Louden, as he walked home from school, the three students exited the car and kicked him in the head 20 to 30 times, according to the incident report. The assault gave him a severe concussion, a spinal sprain and temporary unconsciousness during the attack, he said at the time.
“They spat in my face,” Louden told The Eagle in 2014. “They were yelling, ‘We’re gonna kill you, you [anti-gay slur]. You f---ing bitch, you’re dead …We’ll put you in the hospital. We’ll f---ing kill you.’ Just stuff like that, the whole time.”
The alleged assailants -- Milain Fayulu, Anthony Abdelnour and Miguel Lama -- were arrested by the Metropolitan Police Department. Fayulu and Abdelnour had previously attempted to recruit Louden to EI, but Louden refused, leading to harassment on multiple occasions, he said.
According to D.C. Superior Court records reviewed by The Eagle, Fayulu pled guilty to simple assault as part of a plea agreement. In January 2016, he received a suspended sentence of 180 days in prison, a year of supervised probation, and 100 hours of community service and anger management classes. Lama’s case was dismissed after he could not return to the U.S. from the Dominican Republic, and information about Abdelnour’s case was not available.
The email leak, which gained national attention, contained discussions between EI members about sexual assault, crimes, physical violence and drug use. This sparked a change to the student conduct code in which specific language addressed EI and unrecognized groups at AU.
GRAPHIC BY JENNIFER CRONEY/THE EAGLE
The changes to the conduct code included:
- Adding “interpersonal violence including, but not limited to, physical assault, dating violence and domestic violence”
- Separating stalking and harassment, categorizing them as two different violations
- Amending the definition of stalking to add “or to inflict substantial emotional distress,” to the 2013-2014 Student Conduct Code definition of stalking
The EI incident also led to changes in AU’s programming, including its sexual assault awareness training during Eagle Summit. In summer 2016, the University changed its conduct code again to discipline students who “provided assistance to and perpetuating the activities of an unrecognized group engaged in prohibited conduct” -- a direct shot at EI.
But going into the fall of 2016, EI was still alive and well, recruiting a new class of freshmen to carry on its legacy.
Expelled EI members share their stories
Two students expelled for their involvement with Epsilon Iota, who requested anonymity for fear of retribution, said the underground group operated much like recognized fraternities at AU. Both were freshmen when they decided to pledge the organization.
One of the students expelled, who will be referred to as John, said he was recruited by the vice president of Epsilon Iota and joined a pledge class of 10 freshmen. He first became interested in the organization in October 2016, officially pledged in January 2017 and was admitted as a member on May 1.
He said the pledging process for the group was essentially “the same as every other fraternity.” John said later that the period was a bit more “intense” and longer than normal fraternities, stating that the pledge process lasted for about four months compared to a typical two to three month time period.
“One of the things that people neglect to see is that every fraternity operates in basically the same matter,” John said. “They’re all just protecting risky behavior.”
Members of the Interfraternity Council did not respond to multiple requests for interviews regarding EI and how its conduct compares to recognized fraternities at AU. In 2014, council members denounced EI as not “in any way associated with fraternity and sorority life” at AU, going on to blame administrator inaction for “an isolated, yet continually existing culture of misogyny and violence.”
John said the hazing process included being forced to drink alcohol excessively, eating “gross things” and doing the “trail of tears” initiation: an exercise in which participants crawl through the woods and have to drink a certain amount of beers and do exercises along the way.
“It was just a group of older people getting their kicks out of giving younger people the boot,” John said. “What’s troubling to me is that this sort of behavior is not frowned upon as much as it's frowned upon only in sectors that cannot be controlled by the school.”
What drew John to join EI as a freshman was how diverse the organization was compared to other fraternities on campus. John said he saw more international students in EI than the recognized fraternities at AU.
“It’s interesting for me to see that American University, a school that really prides itself on inclusiveness, progressiveness and diversity, held some of the more racist and prejudicial people that I’ve met,” John said. “EI seemed to be the only fraternity to which different groups of people were accepted because I noticed that there were no international students at any other fraternity.”
John said that he did not hear about sexual assault allegations against the current members of the organization.
“Seeing for myself, the kind of the people that were currently in it when I joined, those [sexual assault] allegations couldn’t be leveled at them more than the people who were previously in the organization,” John said.
Additionally, John said he believes sexual assault isn’t exclusive to only EI. He said sexual assault happens in recognized fraternities at AU.
“Of course [stories of sexual assault by other fraternities] will never be brought to light because American University sees it very fit to protect certain people over others,” John said. “One of the main things is that whatever allegations that were brought against EI were never brought to us as individuals, they were brought against people who were formerly in the organization.”
John said that the members of the freshman pledge class were only part of EI for eight days before being expelled. AU failed to punish the older members and rather “succeeded in getting rid of the pledge class,” he said. AU forced them to “pay for the sins” of people who “actually ran” the fraternity, John claims.
“All they really did was make a group of freshman that got roped into something suffer,” John said. “While the actual people that control and distributed this sort of organization, nothing really happened to them, they were still allowed to keep their diploma.”
John said he disassociated with the group entirely since the expulsions and is no longer friends with EI members.
“I began to see that the same behavior that I had once sought to get rid of is the same behavior that might have been continued had I’ve been friends with these people,” John said.
John said he plans to continue his education elsewhere after this experience.
“For me, it’s a learning experience. I really do hope that universities try to crack down on this sort of behavior, not just within me but fraternities in general,” John said. “You see now that all of them are the same, they all operate the same, act the same and engage in the same behavior and they all protect each other the same.”
John’s experience with EI was very similar to that of another EI member, referred to as Sam. Sam was in the same freshman pledge class as John.
“Ultimately it’s unfair. Kids know me and they know my friends, they know we’re not bad kids and I mean all we have is that we share a community bond,” Sam said. “The fact that it had to go like this is pretty crazy and our side of the story doesn’t really get told at all.”
For Sam, EI was a “haven” of international students and different cultures uniting to create a brotherhood without paying dues to AU.
“It’s so ironic because what EI was is what AU wants: a diverse group of people getting together for cooperation,” Sam said. “It’s exactly what it was.”
Sam agreed with John that EI operated and acted like a normal fraternity on campus.
“I thought it was an incredible organization that the world needs more of ... more groups that people from around the world can come together,” Sam said. “Everyone was on the same side, to party, drink beer, smoke weed, whatever. But, it also brought cultures and customs back home.”
But what differentiates Sam from John is Sam’s love for EI and the brotherhood it gave him.
“It broke my heart to see this institution get rid of it where there’s no other school where EI could’ve existed really, like an international fraternity,” Sam said. “It’s very ironic that this school hated this group of people for so long because it’s the press and everything. It really tarnished the reputation.”
AU takes action after April party
In a memo sent out on Aug. 28, AU announced it had taken disciplinary action against EI. The University expelled 18 people and put one student on disciplinary probation.
Aw said that the University made it a top priority to discipline members of Epsilon Iota.
“One of the things in particular about EI in general is that this has been on our radar, and it’s something we have been paying attention to because it is critical to us that we prioritize safety in the learning environment for all of our students,” Aw said. “So when it comes to EI or frankly any group that would engage in the kind of activities that would be described with EI, we pay attention to it.”
Sixty-seven students since 2010 have been charged for being affiliated with EI for various violations of the student code of conduct, Aw said. She said that expulsions weren’t new -- the only difference is that the recent 18 expulsions have been publicized.
According to Public Safety documents reviewed by The Eagle, the expulsions stemmed from an April 15 “beach party” hosted at a residence where several EI members lived. The students publicized the event on Facebook, which helped Public Safety officers identify members and potential conduct violations committed by the members.
The Public Safety report, filed on May 10, found that it was “more probable than not” that the individuals identified in the report violated the University’s policies concerning alcohol, threatening the safety of other people and providing assistance to an “underground group.”
Kelly Alexander, AU’s director of public relations, said in an email to The Eagle that the April 15 party was not logged into AU’s daily crime log because it was “not a record of a crime on campus or incident reported directly to AU Police” and was used to support a conduct investigation, not a crime investigation.
In addition to reports from the party, Aw said administrators also looked at how the actions of students associated with Epsilon Iota compared to the language in the University’s conduct code.
Aw said her job was to uphold the same standards for every student group, regardless of whether or not they are officially recognized by the University.
“For me in my current role, my job is to hold any group who’d engage in these types of activities [accountable],” Aw said. “Whether it’s underground or not, it is key to ensure that we’re holding any group that is a recognized student organization to these standards.”
Anna Donohue and Lydia Calitri contributed to this story.
This story was originally published in the Oct. 20 print edition of The Eagle.