Towson University's top-ranked cheerleading team encouraged its new members to drink alcohol before they put on blindfolds, pulled adult diapers over their shorts and performed a dance described as a hazing ritual last summer, newly released documents show.
The documents, obtained by The Baltimore Sun in a public records request, outline violations of the student code — including serving alcohol to those under 21 — and detail for the first time why Towson's cheerleading team was suspended by the university for the 2013-2014 academic year. The team appealed the punishment, which was later softened to one semester of probation that prevented them from performing.
Vice President for Student Affairs Deb Moriarty said the university has a "zero tolerance" policy for hazing.
"First and foremost we want our students to be safe, and that's physically and emotionally and psychologically safe," she said. "We don't want a [university]-sanctioned organization to do anything that jeopardizes our students' safety."
Head cheerleading coach Edy Pratt declined to comment Tuesday.
Last August, an anonymous source contacted the university about the incident, and officials immediately launched an investigation, according to a summary of the university's findings. The university found that freshmen on the team had gone to an off-campus apartment, where they were told at the door by veteran members that they could say no to anything they were asked to do.
Then the women were told they had a choice between doing cocaine or heroin, to test their understanding of team rules. "Although no drugs were provided, this was done to let the new members on the team know that the team was drug free," investigators wrote.
The new cheerleaders were given the choice to either funnel a beer or take a shot of alcohol, and all the women obliged, according to the investigation. They were taken to a room in the apartment where they were blindfolded and given adult diapers to wear over their shorts.
The freshmen were then led into the apartment's living room, where the blindfolds were removed, and most of the women performed a brief individual dance wearing the diaper in front of the rest of the team. The team then danced together, investigators wrote. Not all members of the team were present at the activity. Investigators did not clarify who was present.
According to the university, multiple cheerleaders interviewed were consistent in their accounts of the incident. But they insisted to the university that it was "not a big deal" and was a "team bonding experience." They told investigators that the activity, called "team night," was an annual cheer camp event, but that the coaching staff did not know about it. Freshmen paid $5 to participate.
The university charged the team with three violations of the Code of Student Conduct, including violation of the hazing policy, serving alcohol to those under 21 and endangering student safety because of the beer funneling. The team was suspended from practicing or performing for the entire academic year.
In a response to the university, the team members accepted the version of events outlined by the university and apologized. But they disagreed that the activity endangered the students and said new members were told that they did not have to participate.
"Although it may have seemed that this evening had a negative impact on the freshmen, the intent was to bring the team closer together," the team members wrote. "There was no goal in mind to make anyone feel uncomfortable or inferior. ... All team members made choices they were comfortable with."
Many universities have adopted a zero-tolerance approach to hazing after several violent incidents, including the 2011 hazing that led to the death of a drum major at Florida A&M; University. In December, a pledge of Pi Delta Psi Fraternity at Baruch College in New York died after being tackled repeatedly during hazing.
But national cheerleading officials have said suspending an entire team is unusual in the sport.
In their appeal, the cheerleaders argued that the university's investigation had been unfair to them and that the sanctions were overly severe. They said the university should have considered their numerous community service activities and athletic success. Earlier in 2013, the squad won the All Girl Division 1 category of the National Cheerleaders Association's Collegiate Cheerleading Championship.
After the appeal, university officials lessened the penalty to social probation and 650 hours of community service over the fall semester. The entire team was also required to participate in educational sessions outlined by the university.
Under social probation, the team could practice but could not participate in any university or off-campus events, including athletic events. Officials wrote that they changed the penalty because, though the team "knew, or should have known" that the activity was a violation of university policy, the women got little to no formal hazing education.
University officials declined in the fall to release their investigative reports related to the incident, saying that the Maryland attorney general's office had advised them that the records were private under the Federal Educational Rights and Privacy Act. The Sun filed further requests for the documents, which were released last week after the university consulted again with the Attorney general's office. Students' names were redacted from the documents.