Holding up a house
On an unusually warm Saturday in February, a group of students swig from blue Solo cups and dangle their feet out second-story windows, where they snap pictures of the crowd on the porch below. A single can of Natural Light sits atop a sign of the letter A, the first of the fraternity’s three letters: ATO.
The party at the Alpha Tau Omega house is a rare sight for students passing by on Third Street. The fraternity has been off social probation for only a month, and the men are being scrutinized by the administration. But after seven ethics cases, four semesters of probation and one year after a girl said she was raped in the house, ATO is having a party.
The fraternity isn’t trying to party secretly in a dark basement. They’re out in the open, on the front porch. In the middle of the afternoon.
ATO President Tommy Paslaski cannot stand still. The sophomore scans the party for floating handles of vodka. He walks up to a brother, takes a handle away from him and pours the liquor into a plastic cup for him instead.
Walking around the side of the ATO house, he spots a drunken girl climbing on to the rooftop. He immediately asks her to get down.
She laughs, “Fuck off.”
She doesn’t seem to know who he is. Annoyed but unfazed, the president asks her a second time. She gets down.
The girl is a liability — his guest and his responsibility. If one drunken partygoer goes to the hospital, if one ATO member gets too belligerent, if one girl falls off the roof and breaks her neck, ATO could be back on social probation — or worse, kicked off campus for good.
Paslaski carries it all on his shoulders.
Rarely have fraternities nationwide faced sharper criticism than in the past few months. A Sigma Phi Epsilon pledge at Clemson University was found dead after allegedly refusing to buy his brothers McDonald’s. Members of Sigma Alpha Epsilon at the University of Oklahoma were videotaped singing a racist song. A Facebook page for Penn State’s Kappa Delta Rho displayed photographs of drugs, hazing and nude women.
On a campus known nationwide for its greek life, with the “world’s greatest college weekend” days away, Paslaski must keep one of IU’s most infamous fraternities off probation and out of the headlines.
He’s heard the names people call ATO. “AT Blow,” “AT Snow” “The Party House” and even “The Rape House.” Before pledging, Paslaski refused to believe the rumors that if he joined ATO he would have to “do a line of coke and get a dildo” — both of which ended up being entirely false.
ATO’s reputation is scarred in part by its notorious but discontinued “Ménage à Tau” party, an annual, exclusive soiree at which female guests drank expensive alcohol and wore lingerie. It was there, last year, that a student said she was raped.
Paslaski received minimal training for the job, but every weekend he has to manage hundreds of intoxicated men and women under one roof. Every day, he makes decisions that could affect — and potentially upset — up to 140 men.
These men are his closest friends, the kind of guys who are always there to listen if he just needs to watch a game of football and vent, a group of men who stood together even when their fraternity was in shambles.
Paslaski knows ATO is more than a party house. He just needs to prove it.
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*The data points were compiled from IU Police Department crime logs from 2009-2015 and filtered to include incidents that were reported to have occurred either at a fraternity house or at a location associated with a fraternity. Incidents that were reported by members of a fraternity, such as theft or vandalism that involved no citations for a fraternity member, were omitted.
One time, when a girl saw Paslaski wearing his fraternity letters, she said she found it hard to believe he joined ATO. When it comes to ATO stereotypes, Paslaski — along with many of his friends in ATO — doesn’t fit the bill.
“Paslo,” as his brothers call him, is a telecommunications major and business minor. In a perfect world, he would work as a special education teacher, he says, but he’ll probably end up going into business. He went to Catholic school, served as a religious retreat leader and spent six years volunteering with kids with autism, Down syndrome and cerebral palsy.
“It helped me get a good perspective on the world,” Paslaski said. “It really centers me.”
A first-born with three sisters in high school, Paslaski grew up surrounded by women. While his sisters all played with Barbies, Paslaski was often alone. He always wanted a brother.
His father was an ATO at IU, and Paslaski grew up hearing stories of the three years in which his dad biked in the Little 500 during the early 1980s, shortly after the release of “Breaking Away.”
When Paslaski met the ATO guys for a rush event his freshman year, they seemed genuine. The chapter was an obvious choice.
Earlier this school year, Paslaski attended the Indiana Greek Emerging Leaders conference and a couple of his brothers told him he should run for president. He was elected and came back from winter break with something about him that screamed change, said sophomore and ATO Vice President Christian Albrecht.
“He’s one of the most motivated people I’ve ever met,” Albrecht said. “He’s trying to get everyone not to just better the house but better themselves.”
So far, Paslaski’s efforts seem to be working. The chapter’s average GPA is at its highest in more than five years, and its retention rate is higher than in years past, said Wynn Smiley, CEO for the national ATO fraternity. Paslaski encouraged all ATO pledges to apply for Men Against Rape and Sexual Assault. ATO is one of the most involved chapters in the group.
Paslaski is also training for two triathlons this summer and hopes to compete in an Iron Man next summer. He works out nine times a week, and has a resting heart rate of 49 beats per minute. It’s common for Paslaski to go straight from monitoring a party to running six miles.
“It helps me cope with the stress,” Paslaski said.
He thinks sleep is a waste of time.
In the ATO formal living room one Monday night, the executive board members sit in couches in a circle, where they rest their feet on the coffee table in the center. Paslaski looks at his notes while scarfing down a plate of fried chicken and mashed potatoes — he hasn’t had time to eat
Paslaski talks about the plans for that week — an American Red Cross Blood Drive, an interview for campus greek life awards. This will also be the week to encourage members to apply for positions on several new committees, including public relations, food and intramural athletics.
“More stuff will get done the more people are involved in the house,” Paslaski says.
He talks about an ATO member who broke a lamp in the house when he was drunk one night, and, as punishment, the Judicial Board told him he would have to be sober on “Quals,” the qualifying race day for Little 500 bike teams and the infamous day of nonstop partying around campus.
“We used to live in a house where you could get too drunk and punch a window and everyone cheers,” Paslaski says. But not on his watch.
“It’s really not hard to not intentionally punch out a
window,” he says.
The guys talk about how to teach pledges to sober monitor parties — always put vodka handles away at midnight, never pre-pour drinks. Wear black-and-white referee shirts, just in case people need to know who’s calling the shots. Make sure every girl signs in, so they can keep track of which sororities are present in case something happens.
Sober monitors had to turn away a group of girls that weekend because they were too drunk, Paslaski says. It’s not always easy for freshman pledges to turn away girls, Albrecht tells the group.
“What would you rather have, a drunk girl being pissed at you or your house being in jeopardy?” Albrecht says.
No major risk issues have come up yet this semester, Paslaski says.
The guys all knock on the wooden table.
“Let’s keep that up,”
Times were different when Paslaski’s dad was an ATO at IU. The University was less strict — ATO could throw keg parties on the roof and invite more than two or three sororities. It was the era of “Animal House.”
In 1992, the IU chapter made national news. At an initiation party, freshman Dennis Jay Jr. and his pledge brothers were forced to drink whiskey and wine from a funnel while blindfolded until they threw up, according to an article in People magazine. Jay ended up hospitalized in a coma, with a nearly fatal .48 blood alcohol content. He survived, but the fraternity was kicked off campus.
After three alcohol and fraternity-related student deaths between 1998 and 2000, the University began to crack down more on parties, said Mike Schmeckebier, an adviser for ATO who works as an associate director for graduate career services at the Kelley School of Business.
Parties moved to dark basements behind closed blinds. Out went the kegs, and in came the shots of cheap vodka.
ATO slowly regained its social status on campus, which fed into the chapter’s party culture.
“That stigma started getting in people’s heads,” Paslaski said. “It crashed and burned.”
The chapter was almost kicked off campus in 2010 for hazing and serving alcohol to minors. One hundred ATO members were kicked out. The remaining 20 — almost all freshmen — were forced by their housing board to move out of their house on Third Street and into the Rubicon apartments on Kirkwood
Rules were different for the guys who lived off campus, said Robert Vechiola, Paslaski’s predecessor as president. Fewer guys wanted to rush a fraternity without a house.
ATO got its house back in August 2012. Just more than a year later, it was back on disciplinary probation. At a homecoming party, ATO members called an ambulance to take a drunken girl to the hospital Paslaski said. During sorority “Bid Week,” a freshman girl was sent to the hospital from her dorm after attending an ATO party. During a Welcome Week party the following year, an ATO member called an ambulance yet again.
Vechiola would be summoned to seven different University ethics board hearings during his yearlong presidency — more than any other fraternity president that year, he said.
“At the end of the day, there’s someone responsible for people at every social event,” Vechiola said. “It all leads back to one person, the president.”
The University encourages every fraternity and sorority to make the call to 911 when someone is dangerously drunk. The Hoosier Proactive Alcohol Care Treatment protects students and student organizations from certain punishments related to alcohol consumption, said Melissa Kish, who advises greek life for Student Life and Learning.
But ATO members discovered that there’s a catch. If the Hoosier PACT is used more than once, an organization could face additional sanctions and an ethics hearing, Kish said.
“You don’t get to play Hoosier PACT every week,”
Some of these ethics cases seemed like bad luck to Vechiola. They were almost all spurred by individual party attendees who got too drunk — oftentimes because they drank too much at other fraternities before coming to ATO.
Most of the complaints seemed minor. Then came Ménage.
The theme of ATO’s annual “Ménage à Tau” party was exactly what it sounded like — a play on the French phrase
ménage à trois, meaning threesome. Each fraternity brother would invite two dates, and each date would come wearing nothing but lingerie.
An article on BroBible.com called Ménage à Tau one of the “Top 10 college parties in the nation.”
Senior Lizzy DeHaven went to the party last year with her boyfriend, a senior in ATO.
“When I first heard about it I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” DeHaven said. “Then it became this big fun thing.”
The idea of two dates made sense to DeHaven. A brother could invite his girlfriend, who could then invite one of her own friends. An invite to Ménage à Tau became a symbol of status, Paslaski said.
“It’s not like we were begging girls,” Paslaski said. “Girls would go out of their way to come to Ménage.”
Each ATO brother would serenade the girls he wanted to invite. Girls would buy lingerie, and they always felt like they had to be in their best shape, DeHaven said. Dieting before Ménage was common, she said.
Stretch Hummer limos would pick up each date on the night of the party, Paslaski said, and the brothers would buy large quantities of expensive alcohol — no beer or Karkov, just the fancy stuff, like champagne and Grey Goose.
“If you’re drinking heavily and girls are in lingerie, something’s going to happen,”
At last year’s Ménage, something did happen. Word quickly spread that a girl had been sexually assaulted,
Within 24 hours, Vechiola and the Judicial Board had kicked the brother out of ATO, Vechiola said.
“They were shocked that this guy did this,” DeHaven said. “You could just tell they were all sad it happened.”
The woman never reported the incident to the Office of Student Ethics, Paslaski said. But the University acknowledged that it found out about both the theme of the party and the alleged rape, Kish said. The University heard about the party theme through an email from an IU employee but did not specify how it found out about the sexual assault.
ATO’s disciplinary probation was extended until May 31, 2015, for alcohol-related violations. The ATO executive board banned the party for good.
Paslaski was a pledge at the time, so he didn’t attend Ménage as a member. He said he hated being associated with the theme, and agreed wholeheartedly the chapter needed to put a stop to it.
Although the alleged sexual assault involved an individual member, Schmeckebier said it was a wake up call for the entire chapter.
“ATO shares some responsibility for creating an environment where that can happen,” Schmeckebier said.
Ménage was extreme, but Paslaski said it is not the only fraternity party on campus that promotes a sex-related theme or encourages women to wear revealing clothing. What about Roman Orgy? Office Hoes and CEOs? Workout Bros and Yoga Hoes?
“Our greek system has too many themes that call girls whores and sluts,” Vechiola said.
Paslaski’s former human sexuality professor Debby Herbenick invited the fraternity president to speak on a panel about sexual assault to a class of high school students at Bloomington High School North on Thursday morning.
With prom and the Little 500 approaching, Paslaski talked to students about staying in groups, watching how much they drink and knowing when they need to intervene at a party.
“If you see a girl who’s clearly too drunk, or if you see a guy who’s being creepy with a girl, it is your job to step in and do something,” Paslaski told the students.
He told them about a night when one of his female friends called him from a bar in Bloomington, asking for help. She said she felt threatened by a man who seemed to be putting pills in her drink, Paslaski said. Paslaski picked her up and brought her home.
The ATO president is used to being protective of women — he has been looking out for his three younger sisters his whole life. Now he’s on the other side, keeping an eye on his brothers.
It is about 10 p.m. on a Saturday in February at the ATO house, and the basement party is already filling up.
Paslaski has just returned from a workout and is stretching in the living room. The sober monitors and pledges are all assigned to their posts: front door, back door, bar and crowd watcher.
In the basement, the brothers take shots and play beer pong with the girls, and others watch the IU basketball game. One guy drinks from a beer bong while music blasts from the speakers.
It snowed earlier, and the more people walk in, the more slippery the stairs become. A girl in crutches holds onto her friends as she struggles down the stairs in her high heels and birthday sash.
“Someone’s gonna eat shit on those stairs,” one brother says. A pledge quickly finds paper towels. Another liability and potential injury is dodged, this time.
A couple of nights earlier, at about 5 a.m., a police officer knocked on the door. The officer told Paslaski that a student was found passed out in a stairwell at the Helene G. Simon Hillel Center, next door. The student, who told the officer he was an ATO pledge, was arrested for trespassing and illegal consumption and possession.
Paslaski says the student was never an ATO pledge, and the student refused to speak to the Indiana Daily Student. ATO received no apparent consequences of the arrest. Paslaski simply hoped it would be the last time he would have to speak with cops.
It wasn’t. The chapter got a noise complaint during a party a few weeks later. During the course of three weeks, one girl pulled a fire alarm, a group of girls drew with Sharpies on the walls in the basement, a girl kicked a hole in a wall and another girl broke a $900 table.
Paslaski filled out invoices charging the girls with property damages, then moved on to his next task.
Little 500, the riskiest week of the year, is right around the corner. On Friday, Paslaski and his risk management team plan to meet with Kish and with members of Zeta Tau Alpha, the sorority ATO is paired with for the week of parties.
He’s going to lay out the rules, such as using single entrance points in the house and keeping partygoers out of the formal living room.
“Of course things could happen out of my control, but I’m going to do what I can now to prepare,” Paslaski said. “That’s the only way you can survive Little Five.”
If ATO can keep a clean record — at the very least until Little 500 — it will be a huge milestone. They plan to hire a disc jockey and host a concert in the back parking lot to
The next goal is to make it to the 100th anniversary of the chapter house in December. It would feel like ATO was truly back for good.
Until then, the president starts off every chapter meeting by saying, “Another week off probation!” And the brothers always cheer.
Article published 04/17/15