Twenty-four fraternity brothers at the University of Maryland in College Park have been accused of beating six new members so badly during initiation that they suffered injuries ranging from a ruptured spleen to a fractured ankle.
Campus police said yesterday that they have charged the 24 young men with seven counts each of hazing, a criminal misdemeanor under Maryland law. Each count is punishable by six months in jail and a fine of $500.
Criminal charges in such hazing incidents are rare, although College Park has taken taken disciplinary action against students in about a half-dozen cases in the past 10 to 15 years, a university spokesman said.
Lt. Don E. Smith, assistant chief of campus police at College Park, said he could remember only one other case of criminal hazing charges being filed in his 16 years on the force.
The beatings allegedly took place between February and April, when the Omega Psi Phi fraternity was initiating new members, known as pledges.
One student suffered a ruptured spleen and collapsed lung, authorities said. Another was said to have received cracked ribs and a ruptured eardrum.
Still other injuries included black eyes, a "severe stress-related stomach disorder," a fractured ankle and a bruised cheek, campus police said.
Witnesses told police that fraternity members punched, kicked and hit the pledges, sometimes using leather and horsehair whips, brushes, belts or wooden paddles. At other times, police said, pledges were forced to do sit-ups and push-ups to the point of exhaustion.
Police said they would not release the names of those charged until they have been served with court summonses. As of yesterday, only one of the 24 had been served, Lieutenant Smith said.
The accused students also face disciplinary action by university authorities.
"Historically, when charges have been proven, those found responsible have been suspended or expelled," said Gary Pavela, director of the university's Office of Judicial Programs.
The university last month suspended Omega Psi Phi, an action )) that bars the group from any formal activities.
Omega Psi Phi is a national service fraternity, which means it is involved in a variety of projects designed to benefit the community.
The university may now consider revoking the chapter's charter, said Roland King, a university spokesman.
"It's a very serious incident," Mr. King said.
"It resulted in serious bodily injury, based on the allegations and the charges that have been filed."
The fraternity's national office has also suspended the College Park chapter.
Representatives of the fraternity could not be reached yesterday.
The investigation of the fraternity began April 13, when campus police received an anonymous letter alleging that pledges were being beaten.
The writer, who claimed to be "a young female student" employed by the campus student-aid office, said that "brutal incidents of hazing" occurred on the campus "almost nightly."
The letter writer said she made the allegations public "after talking with fellow students, members of sororities . . . and after observing the pledges of this fraternity limping around on campus."
The identity of the letter's author was also the subject of an investigation -- in large part because the writer said her job gave her access to home addresses of the victims and she sent copies of the letter to their parents.
Mr. King said he did not know of any disciplinary action taken against the writer.