The University of Maryland, Baltimore County has suspended five women's lacrosse players and stopped contact drills at team practices after school officials said older players threatened bodily harm against freshmen on social media, prompting a university investigation.
UMBC athletics director Tim Hall said he didn't believe players were in danger but increased supervision of the team as a precaution. University counselors are meeting with those involved to recommend how to address the team's problems and whether further disciplinary action is needed, said Nancy Young, vice president for student affairs.
Four of the five athletes apologized in a statement Monday night, saying their comments were "absolutely inexcusable" and "utterly inappropriate."
"Our hurtful, destructive words and tone are absolutely inexcusable on many levels," the statement said. "Our stance was utterly inappropriate, and we are deeply sorry to the many we negatively impacted, particularly our hard-working teammates who deserve much better.
"We let our emotions get the best of us over time and we failed."
The social media posts were on GroupMe, a free messaging app that compares itself to "a private chat room for your small group." University officials and the students' spokesman declined to discuss the specifics of the messages.
"I'm aware of the stuff that was on social media and the language and behavior and certainly it's highly concerning," Hall said. "We started to take safety precautions, including increased supervision at team practices because they are in season and we didn't want to interrupt the continuity."
Schools and universities around the nation have grappled with how to handle cyberbullying and the potential pitfalls of social media.
Yik Yak, a location-based app that allows posters "to share thoughts with people around you while keeping your privacy," has thrived on college campuses around the nation, despite criticism that its anonymous nature allows for cyberbullying.
Last week, University of Maryland, College Park President Wallace D. Loh hosted a Twitter conversation about racism, sexual assault and free speech when an offensive email allegedly written by a student to fraternity brothers went viral online.
Young said the university takes all reported threats seriously, a daunting task when students are interacting more than ever online, in public and private forums. She said the fast-paced environment of social media and the detached nature of online communication can lead students to post before thinking.
Bradley S. Shear, a sports and social media attorney, said universities are obligated to take action.
Students "have a First Amendment right to discuss things, but when you start making physical threats ... that raises concerns the school needs to investigate," he said.
Hall said co-coaches Tony Giro and Amy Slade informed him of the threats on March 6. He said he met with Young on March 9 and began the review process. The UMBC athletics department is part of the division of student affairs.
Two days later, five players — senior Alyssa Semones, junior Brittany Marquess, and sophomores Mackenzie Reese, Amber Kovalick and Meghan Milani — were suspended indefinitely, said UMBC athletics spokesman Steve Levy. Semones, Reese and Milani had started against the Maryland Terps on March 4.
A media relations firm, the Fallston Group, announced late Monday that it had been retained by four of the players "to assist with navigating a very difficult public issue." It attributed the apology to Kovalick, Milani, Reese and Semones.
Rob Weinhold, of the Fallston Group, said the players thought they were communicating in a private chat room "to vent with one another about some of the occurrences on the team and that digital conversation became public." He said they never intended to physically harm anyone.
Marquess could not be reached to comment.
Giro declined to comment Monday.
Hall said all five were suspended for conduct that's detrimental to the team, a rule in the athletics department handbook and in team rules distributed to all players.
The athletes' futures are unclear. UMBC is "still in the review process," Young said. She declined to comment on any potential outcomes, saying that would be "premature," but Hall said the players could be reinstated depending on the investigation's findings.
The athletics department and members of the student affairs division are conducting the investigation, which is ongoing and "all-encompassing," Hall said. He said the investigation would determine whether the alleged threats constituted hazing or bullying.
When students make threats at UMBC, a group of university counselors meet with them to determine the credibility of the threats and to make a recommendation to other university bodies regarding discipline or other actions, Young said.
The lacrosse team's case is unusual in its scope, Young said.
"We have not had to intervene in this way with large groups," she said. "Most of the things we experience here are quite frankly things between [two] students."
The university treats each situation differently based on the details, she said. She called the responses "an art as much as a science."
"There are steps you want to follow, but those steps may vary based on the situation," she said. "We literally custom fit this to every case. Because there is no one size fits all, we make sure every individual is getting what they need."
Hall's department tries to teach student athletes about how to conduct themselves online and in social media. He said that Janet Judge, an attorney who concentrates on intercollegiate athletics law and speaks regularly at universities around the country, spoke to the UMBC athletes at their orientation about hazing and social media, among other things, Hall said.
"You're constantly educating," Hall said. "We are all educators and as much as we want to win championships, our priority and our main responsibility is preparing young people to be the future leaders of our society. Certainly, we take the education part of it real seriously."
Administrators and coaches do not monitor social media at UMBC, Hall said.
"There are various statutes within the state system that delineate social media and the responsibilities employees and coaches have in terms of not being intrusive into that," he said.
"So we talk about making good and responsible decisions, and we use people who are experts to talk about it and use examples of things that have happened in other places as examples of when it doesn't go right."