The University of Florida’s chapter of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity is under investigation after members spit on and took flags from wounded veterans.
Last weekend, Zeta Beta Tau students from UF and Emory University were in Panama City Beach for their spring formal. They were staying at the Laketown Wharf Resort where veterans were also staying for the Warrior Beach Retreat, according to Linda Cope, founder of the retreat.
For the past six years, the Warrior Beach Retreat has been hosted by Panama City Beach twice a year to bring in wounded veterans and their families.
Cope honors her son, Joshua, at the retreat — he lost both legs and his right hand after his vehicle hit a roadside bomb in Iraq, according to the retreat site.
“We focus on the caregiver and strengthening marriages,” Cope said. “That’s our vision.”
The event brought together combat wounded veterans and included a parade on April 16 where between 8,000 and 10,000 people lined the streets. Cope said the students from Emory and UF acted dishonorably the next day.
Cope said Zeta Beta Tau students picked on the veterans, spit on them and their service dogs, and urinated on American flags.
“In all of my years, I’ve never seen such debauchery and disrespect,” Cope said.
Cope also said the women accompanying the men were equally as bad.
According to Panama City Beach Police, officers were not called, and there was not an incident report or any arrests.
Janine Sikes, the assistant vice president for media affairs at UF, said UF President W. Kent Fuchs received an email from Linda Cope concerning the incident.
Cope then received an email apology from Fuchs on Wednesday.
“I want to make clear that I am deeply sorry for the affront that our students may have caused,” Fuchs wrote in the email. “I want to assure you that it is not representative of our students or our university, and we will make every effort to learn more, take appropriate action and prevent similar incidents from occurring again.”
“The University of Florida is extremely concerned about allegations, specifically of illegal behavior with our students,” Sikes said. “We’re taking this matter vary seriously and opened an investigation to determined what happened and what we need to do in response.”
Sikes said she is not sure how long the investigation may last.
Executive Director of the National Zeta Beta Tau Laurence A. Bolotin, a University of Florida graduate from 2001, also wrote to Cope, stating Emory, UF and the international headquarters are fully cooperating with investigations and both chapters have placed themselves under suspension.
The UF chapter, which is currently under probationary status until Dec. 19, 2015, wrote to the Warrior Beach Retreat and veterans to offer apologies and to assure those involved would face consequences.
According to the letter, “As a Fraternity, we have a ZERO tolerance policy for such behaviors, and those found guilty will be expelled. The deeds described on both social media and in letters to our University are completely against our Fraternity’s values and ideas and those that have failed to respect those values will not be welcomed anymore.”
The UF chapter also offered financial assistance to the retreat so more veterans can participate in the coming years.
“We’re going to let them do that,” Cope said. “I’m thinking of different ideas because we could really use some fundraisers.”
Both the national and UF chapters were contacted for comment but did not return phone calls; however, they released their written statements.
Emory has not yet contacted Cope. Updated: Emory has released a statement that university officials have been in touch with the Copes.
“We’ve gotten nothing from Emory,” she said, “not one word.”
Expulsion may not be the only punishment students involved may face. Gainesville attorney Geoffrey Mason said this could qualify as a hate crime with additional battery charges.
Mason said someone could make the argument that the veterans’ national origin — the fact that they are Americans — was a factor.
“I would say especially if they were over 65,” he continues, “then that would absolutely be a hate crime, if it’s related to age.”
Prejudice towards physical disabilities or limitations can also be regarded as a hate crime.
“If they spit on a person, that’s absolutely battery,” Mason said.
Mason said Florida has provisions dealing with battery of the elderly, which would be classified as a higher level crime. The maximum legal sentence would be five years in prison and up to a $5,000-fine.
Penalties from UF have yet to be determined.
“I can’t talk about individual students, but I can tell you that the Zeta Beta Tau chapter certainly faces sanctions,” Sikes said.
It is Cope’s hope that students can learn a lesson in respect and responsibility from the incident.
“To every action, there is a reaction and a consequence,” Cope said. “They don’t need to take in vain the sacrifice these men and women have given for them to have the freedoms they have.”
Nicole Wiesenthal and Adriana Yurizza contributed to this report.