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Southside Neighbors File Lawsuit Against University Fraternities

By Riya Bhattacharjee
Thursday January 21, 2010 - 09:12:00 AM

Berkeley’s southside is under siege. Or so says a class-action lawsuit filed by some of the area’s residents at the Alameda County Superior Court Tuesday, seeking respite from rowdy UC Berkeley frat boys and their drunken brawls. 

The lawsuit, which names the Interfraternity Council and 35 fraternities belonging to the Berkeley campus as defendants, argues that area homeowners have been “subjected to illegal and injurious conduct” by its members for over two decades. 

The group, which includes the newly established South of Campus Neighborhood Association and southside resident Paul Ghysels, contends that it’s too late to soothe any ill will against the university, and instead requested a restraining order against the frats to prevent them from carrying out any more harassment, underage drinking, assaults and raucous partying, among other “public nuisances.” 

However, Alameda County Judge Frank Roesch shot down the request Tuesday, citing lack of sufficient evidence on the plaintiff’s part to prove that denying the restraining order would result in a high degree of injury for them. 

“The judge essentially said that asking for this kind of a restraining order at such short notice requires multiple levels of proof,” said Louis Garcia, a Berkeley attorney who is representing the neighbors. “This is just the first step. We will file another motion for a preliminary injunction in the next few days. It will give more time to the fraternities to read over our papers and file a detailed response, which they didn’t have the opportunity to do today.” 

The defendants were represented by attorneys for the Interfraternity Council and an independent lawyer hired by one of the fraternities, university officials said. 

UC Berkeley currently has 2,700 students in 40 fraternities and 21 sororities, roughly 11 percent of the campus population. 

Garcia said the class-action lawsuit was the first of its kind to be filed against college fraternities in the United States. 

“Our intent is for this lawsuit to lead to responsible adult supervision of the fraternity houses,” Garcia said. “If our class action is successful, we believe this will contribute significantly to a safer and more livable environment for nearby residents, the Berkeley community at large and the fraternities.” 

University Director of Fraternity and Sorority Life Grahaeme Hesp said he didn’t have a chance to look at the lawsuit yet. 

“While I can’t comment on the lawsuit since UC Berkeley has not been named in it, I can say that I have seen a marked improvement in the behavior of fraternities since I came here in 2006,” Hesp said. “There’s been a pretty positive and open line of communication between the neighbors and students.” 

Although Hesp directed inquiries to Peter Smithhisler, president and CEO of the North American Interfraternity Conference, Smithhisler said that it was the Interfraternity Council at UC Berkeley which had been named in the lawsuit and not his organization. 

Calls to UC Berkeley’s media relations office for comment were not returned by press time. 

Garcia said that in 2007, more than 600 complaints and service requests were filed to the police against 34 fraternity houses in Berkeley, with an average of 18 calls for each frat house. 

One frat house alone generated 45 calls to the police, he said. Garcia said that perhaps the most tragic incident to result from “this culture of violence and abuse” was the death of UC Berkeley engineering senior Chris Wootton, who suffered a fatal stab wound during a drunken brawl outside a fraternity house on Warring Street in 2008. 

Ghysels, one of the lead plaintiffs who has lived next to two fraternities on Durant Avenue since the 1980s, said he filed the lawsuit after getting frustrated with the lack of enforcement by city and university officials. 

“Anybody in the neighborhood who tries to address the drunken, disorderly behavior gets retaliated against,” said Ghysels, who said that he had to tolerate broken windows, prank phone calls and beer bottles thrown at his house almost weekly. “We’ve tried to look at it calmly, but UC Berkeley is saying we can’t do anything, the police are saying we can’t do anything. We had no other recourse but to go ahead and file the lawsuit.” 

Ghysels said he had security camera footage of a 7.5-pound weight being dropped on his wife from a four-story roof which he alleged was the handiwork of a fraternity member. Ghysels’ house abuts two fraternities and is on the fringes of fraternity row, which encompasses Channing and Warring streets. 

“When we go to court his face will be visible,” said Ghysels, who is keeping a log of all the incidents on his website “They have broken into my house, damaged my surveillance tapes, urinated all over my couches—it’s out of control. You may ask how I know they are fraternity boys? Well, I caught one of them.” 

Hesp said that it was important that neighbors and fraternity members deal with incidents “there and then.” 

“They should call for police help. Once the university finds out about it we will follow up on it,” he said. “We can’t react unless we know what’s going on.” 

In the past the university has formed a Chancellor’s Task Force on Student/Neighbor relations to address unruly behavior at frat houses and even created a dedicated UCPD squad to monitor frat parties, but Ghysels said they were to no avail and had simply led to wasted resources at a time of severe budget constraints.  

“There’s a double standard in Berkeley,” Ghysels said. “Cal students can do what they want but if a person of a minority did it, we put him behind bars. The university and city’s attitude is that if you ignore a problem it will go away, but the problem will not just go away.” 

Calls to Caleb Dardick, the university’s director of community relations, were not returned by press time.