Oklahoma school’s response to video caught between racism, Civil Rights Act

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**Embargo: Oklahoma City, OK** Students from the University of Oklahoma march across campus Monday, March 9, 2015. The national chapter of Sigma Alpha Epsilon shut down the chapter at the University of Oklahoma Sunday night, following a video showing party-bound fraternity members on a bus chanting a racial epithet. The members had until midnight Tuesday […]

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Expel them!

That was the immediate reaction of many to news that the University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity had engaged in a racist chant while en route to a party over the weekend.

It seems simple enough: Find the perpetrators who clapped, pumped their fists and laughed as they chanted, “There will never be a ni**** SAE,” and permanently boot them off the Norman campus.

The rest of the song would seem to make the case even stronger. On top of the racial epithet, the fraternity members on the bus were recorded invoking a lynching: “You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me. There will never be a ni**** SAE.”

As clearly reprehensible as those words are, how to handle the people involved is far murkier, according to university President David Boren. While he unwaveringly declared “there is no room for racists and bigots” at his university, the very thing that could keep the SAE fraternity brothers Oklahoma Sooners is Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The law “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, and national origin in programs and activities receiving federal financial assistance,” but it also provides the parameters for determining if someone is violating the federal law, Boren said.

At a news conference Monday, Boren said the school was looking into punishing the people involved, especially those “who have taken a lead” in the chanting.

While expulsion is an option, any punishment must be “carefully directed” if it’s to pass constitutional muster. One key will be whether the offending students created a hostile environment on campus, he said.

“I think some of the students themselves may take themselves off the campus, and I hope they do because this is not a place that wants racists,” he told CNN later.

On Tuesday, he expanded on his remarks, saying that while lawyers examine the provisions of Title VI and investigators work to identify the ringleaders of the racist chant, he is hoping to boot them off campus, even if just temporarily.

“If I’m allowed to, these students will face suspension or expulsion, because we cannot put up with what they’ve done,” he said.

The Greek letters sigma, alpha and epsilon have already been removed from the frat house’s facade, the house will be closed as of midnight Tuesday, and the university will board up the windows sometime Tuesday, following up on the university’s and the SAE national headquarters’ separate decisions to shutter the Oklahoma chapter, Boren said.

The next step — individual punishments — will be a bit trickier.

“Well, legally, our concern is we have to demonstrate exactly how the educational experience of our students was threatened or disrupted by their actions,” he told CNN, “and it really has to focus on the students on the bus. Did the other students have their educational experience disrupted?”

Boren left the door open, though, to acting unilaterally, even if it poses challenges.

“If I have to take a risk to send these students home permanently or for a semester or the rest of the year — whatever it is I can do — we’re going to do it,” he said.

By Eliott C. McLaughlin

CNN’s Chris Cuomo contributed to this report.

 

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