UF Zeta Beta Tau Members Speak Out After Conduct Hearings

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Four months ago, the University of Florida’s chapter of the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity returned from their Panama City Beach spring retreat shrouded in allegations of misconduct towards veterans.

Accusations, investigations and apologies flew back and forth until the issue became muddled enough that ZBT national office leaders issued a gag order on the members of UF’s ZBT chapter.

Don’t talk about it, they said. Don’t get into even more trouble. We’ll handle it.

Now, with the UF investigations and formal police investigations finally finished, ZBT members are speaking out, and they’re not very happy with the way things were handled.

“To me it was just a normal spring formal, and then we got caught up in this hurricane of outrage,” said former ZBT member Brett Musser, a former executive board member of the fraternity. “I didn’t even know they [the veterans] were there until the second day.”

According to Musser, about 100 UF ZBT brothers were on the trip, accompanied by dates. The Laketown Wharf Resort had nearly reached its capacity, which included nearly 60 veterans from the Warrior Beach Retreat centered in Panama City Beach. The beaches were crowded with other college students on their own spring breaks. Musser, 23, said the excited student environment probably irritated veterans, and it would be easy to assign blame from all of the students to one source.

The first – and only verified – incident occurred when a ZBT brother popped open a champagne bottle on a balcony and spilled some on a veteran’s wife. Two other students were inside the room sleeping.  Though the incident was resolved with an apology, those three students were expelled from the chapter before it was suspended from the university.

“It made it seem like those were the three that spit on people,” Musser said. “Why those people? They were the first ones in the police report. Easy. Easy buckets.”

The aftermath of the retreat brought a storm of criticism down on ZBT and UF as a whole. The chapter was suspended indefinitely and all members were asked to leave the house. Student conduct hearings and other investigations slowly got underway. But damage to public opinion had already been done.

James Newman, a recent ZBT alumnus who served this year as the executive board’s student advisor, spent much time after the retreat doing damage control.

“From the moment these allegations came out, I watched a huge part of the University of Florida campus, I watched the majority of representatives for ZBT chapters, turn on this chapter like that,” Newman said, snapping his fingers. “The first thing we had to do was remove the letters from our cars. Stop wearing our letters around campus.”

Newman said he watched kids have panic attacks, drop out for the semester and miss their exams. Some were assaulted, others harassed. Many received detailed death threats.

“The worst part of it all was they couldn’t defend themselves because they were on a no-contact order from nationals,” Newman said. “It was disheartening to say the least.”

Musser and Newman agree that ZBT nationals could have handled the situation better.

The student conduct hearing decided that ZBT was responsible for violating sections of Student Conduct Code 4(i) of public intoxication, code 4(a)(i) of causing physical or other harm to another person and code 4(b) of obscene behavior involving public exposure of sexual organs.

ZBT accepted the public intoxication charge but is expected to appeal the following two. The fraternity will be suspended for a year, after which they are required to perform 200 hours of community service, fundraise and implement educational programs about veterans’ affairs if they are to be reinstated.

“On the physical harm one, the totality of the evidence was that two people bumped shoulders in a hallway,” said Lee Teichner, an attorney who helped a fraternity member prepare for the trial. “If that’s harmful conduct then the students at the University of Florida better be careful rushing to class.”

Teichner, a UF law school graduate, has a son who was a former member of ZBT.

“They didn’t act respectfully to their own students,” said Teichner about UF. “They addressed their own public appearance at the sacrifice of a lot of kids.”

Analysis of the student conduct hearings, UF reports and police reports coincides with the students’ claims of innocence.

A letter from Associate Dean of Students Chris Loschiavo says “while it was a relief to learn that UF members did not engage in some of the most publicized behaviors, the behavior of the chapter is still not what UF expects of its students at any time.”

UF’s ZBT chapter was already on probation when the spring formal incidents allegedly occurred, which is another reason for their suspension. ZBT Nationals said in a statement to WUFT News that they agreed with UF’s decisions and would work towards reinstatement in the future.

Linda Cope, the president and founder of the Warrior Beach Retreat and vocal critic of the fraternity’s behavior, was contacted but declined to comment on proceedings on the record.

Many ZBT members, disheartened by the entire ordeal, have disaffiliated with ZBT to join another fraternity. Dozens of others have reportedly moved into the same floor of an apartment complex together.

“Through all of this I watched them stick together — and they’re still together,” said Newman. “They may not have letters, but they’re still brothers. Every one of them.”

About Dahlia Ghabour

Dahlia is a reporter for WUFT News and can be contacted by calling 352-392-6397 or emailing news@wuft.org.

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