Hazing rituals at a Towson University fraternity lead to a freshman pledge collapsing and being hospitalized. After the fraternity went under, the brothers banded together for a new one -- without hazing. (Baltimore Sun video)
In their zeal to join a fraternity at Towson University, Brad Notaro and his fellow pledges submitted to a battery of humiliation and abuse.
At the direction of students they hoped would make them brothers at Pi Lambda Phi, they ran and performed jumping jacks for hours on end, crouched under a cold shower holding a bag of ice, ate raw flour and drank a bitter concoction that made them vomit.
Now it was Hell Week — the culmination of the pledge process — and Notaro, 18, was nearing a breaking point. For three days, he said, the brothers forbade him from sleeping and forced him to drink alcohol.
To cope with the stress, Notaro saidin a recent interview,he took anti-anxiety medication — and collapsed inside Towson's Albert S. Cook Library. According to a police report, paramedics found him "unconscious … not moving and exception[ally] pasty and pale."
The next thing he remembers was waking up in a bed at St. Joseph Medical Center, his mother at his side, recovering from an ordeal he said he "would never wish on my worst enemy."
The trial that Notaro, now 21,and his fellow pledges said they endured in the fall of 2011 is one of more than two dozen incidents of alleged hazing detailed in hundreds of pages of documents obtained by The Baltimore Sun through the state Public Information Act. The records from Maryland's public universities, which investigated allegations involving fraternities, sororities and athletic teams, shed new light on rituals long cloaked in secrecy and shame — incidents that often peak during fall "Hell Week" initiations.
The allegations involve humiliation, harassment or physical violence against pledges or younger teammates. Some centered on life-threatening activities such as extreme drinking; others led to injuries that required hospitalization. Most of the cases have never been detailed publicly.
"What one of the brothers told me was that hazing brings you down to the lowest, lowest, lowest levels, and once you get initiated, the brothers will bring you back up," Notaro said. "We got taken down to the lowest, lowest level. And then we were stuck there."
Among the allegations contained in university disciplinary records: A University of Maryland, College Park student was ordered to punch a wooden board until he saw blood — and broke bones in his hand. A freshman on the sailing team at St. Mary's College of Maryland passed out during a drinking game and woke up in a hospital room with "IVs in both arms." A pledge at a fraternity chapter at Towson was hospitalized for two days after being directed to drinka gallon of milk, which can cause digestive problems.
The Sun requested all disciplinary records for student organizations from the state's 12 public universities from 2011 to this year. The records included cases in which organizations were punished for underage drinking or other infractions in addition to the hazing cases. The universities, citing privacy law, removed all student names.
University administrators in Maryland and across the nation have confronted hazing with more training for students and ever harsher penalties for offenders. After the allegations by the Pi Lambda Phi pledges at Towson, for example, the university ordered the chapter to cease operations for two years. When it was allowed to reopen in the spring of this year, it was with an entirely different membership.
Still, the practice persists — often under the radar of officials charged with eliminating it. And as high-profile cases continue to show, the consequences can be catastrophic.
Researchers at the University of Maine in 2008 found that 55 percent of college students nationwide who were involved in clubs, teams and organizations had been hazed at some point. Alcohol consumption, isolation, sleep deprivation and sex acts were common.
Hank Nuwer, author of "Wrongs of Passage: Fraternities, Sororities, Hazing, and Binge Drinking," counts at least one death in each year since 1970 in which hazing is alleged to have been a factor, for a total of more than 140.
They include Daniel Reardon, a freshman at the University of Maryland who died after a night of heavy drinking to celebrate his admission to Phi Sigma Kappa in 2002. His family alleged in court that his new brothers had directed him to drink and did not seek help for him quickly enough after he passed out. The family settled out of court with the fraternity for an undisclosed amount; the fraternity did not acknowledge any wrongdoing.
West Virginia University suspended all Greek activities this month after the death of a freshman pledge at the Kappa Sigma house in Morgantown.
Nolan Burch died Nov. 12. In a final tweet that day, he wrote: "It's about to be a very eventful night, to say the least." Authorities have not said that Burch was hazed; a police investigation is continuing.
The number of injuries and hospitalizations associated with hazing is unknown. Among those who told the Maine researchers they had been victims, only 5 percent had reported the incident to authorities.
The brothers of the Lambda Phi Epsilon chapter at the University of Maryland, College Park kicked off the pledging process last fall by taking prospective members out for a group dinner. After the meal, one of the pledges later told university officials, they were blindfolded and driven in separate cars to a home off campus, according to university records.
Through the rest of the night, the pledges were ordered to hold out their arms for hours while speakers blared the songs "What Does the Fox Say?" and "It's a Small World." The pledges, still blindfolded, were shoved by fraternity members, one of them told officials, and were berated if they moved in response.
Through the next several weeks, pledges later told school officials, they were required to perform tasks such as cleaning brothers' rooms, exercising until exhaustion, coming up with skits to entertain the brothers and reciting the history of the chapter. If a pledge made a mistake, he could be forced to eat a "Lambda apple" — a raw onion.
One pledge left scuffs on a floor he had been directed to clean. According to his account in the school's investigative file, he was thrown to the ground and ordered to punch a wooden board while spelling out "Lambda Phi Epsilon" — with four punches for each letter, a total of 64 blows.
The pledge said he was told he could not stop until he saw blood. He said he completed all 64 punches and kept going until his knuckles bled.
When he later tried to bend his little finger, he told officials, he "screamed bloody murder." X-rays showed microfractures in the bones of his hands, and he lost feeling in his right hand and part of his forearm, an indication of possible nerve damage.
Fraternity brothers blamed bad "technique," the pledge told officials, and joked that they "should've broke [his] hands." He said the incident left him suffering from depression and panic attacks. He couldn't drive or type papers. He lied to his family about how he was injured.
The fraternity chapter wasn't even supposed to be bringing in new members in the fall of 2013. Two years earlier, the university found the chapter had engaged in extreme paddling and prohibited the brothers from recruiting until 2014.
After the new allegations last fall, the university moved to shut the chapter down. Officials issued an immediate cease-and-desist order, investigated the allegations and suspended recognition of the chapter through the 2018-2019 school year.
The chapter's former officers could not be reached for comment. Charles Andrean, the national president of Lambda Phi Epsilon, said in an email that the fraternity "conducted a comprehensive investigation into the matter," concluded that there had been hazing, and suspended the University of Maryland chapter for five years.
Andrean wrote that the incident was "not representative of our fraternity and our values."
'I should stick this out'
Those who study hazing say it can be a powerful bonding experience for students. But, they add, victims might not understand what hazing is or might not recognize it until it's too late.
"Those who volunteer to or consent to being hazed often have no idea what they're getting into," says Gregory S. Parks, a law professor at Wake Forest University. "It may not seem that bad at first, but a week or two weeks down the road, it becomes much more intense.
"It could be extremely intense, extremely violent, but pledges think, 'I should stick this out and I could become a member,' and it becomes very difficult for them to extricate themselves from it and they can't turn back."
Under Maryland law, hazing is a misdemeanor offense that carries a maximum sentence of six months and a fine of up to $500, but allegations are rarely prosecuted. None of the incidents described in this story resulted in criminal charges.
All of the state's public universities have policies that forbid hazing.
Lee Hawthorne, director of student life at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, said people generally think of hazing only in its most severe forms, such as locking a pledge in a room for days or pressuring a teammate to drink to the point of death.
For less onerous demands, she said, students "might think, 'Oh, that's not hazing because no one's getting beaten.'"
In some cases, perpetrators and victims might recognize hazing for what it is, but believe it's an integral part of the Greek experience.
"These organizations were not founded on hazing, but because of media or movies, they sensationalize it and students think it's something they should do," said Matt Lenno, Towson's director of fraternity and sorority life. "We're always combating these movies or these dumb little websites."
As Towson has increased its anti-hazing training, Lenno says, discussion about the issue is growing. He says students will ask whether requiring pledges to wear neckties, for example, would be considered hazing. Lenno said that simply asking pledges to participate in an activity, like carrying around textbooks, isn't necessarily hazing unless there's fear involved.
"If there's no fear of retribution, if there's no fear that they don't get into the organization, then it's OK," Lenno said.
"It's when you induce this fear where if you don't do it you'll be punished, or you won't get into the organization, that's where the problem lies."
In April 2012, a University of Maryland student turned up at Anne Arundel Medical Center with what appeared to be third-degree burns deep in the muscle of his buttocks.
The wounds had the consistency of "black leather," one doctor said, and had become infected, according to documents in the school's investigative file. There was so much dead tissue that the student needed surgery to remove it. He spent five days in the hospital.
The student told hospital workers he had burned himself while trying to iron a pair of pants while wearing them. A doctor called the university to say the wounds couldn't have been self-inflicted.
University police investigated, and the student eventually said he had been hazed while pledging the university's Omega Psi Phi chapter, according to university records.
During one session, he said, pledges were directed to recite a poem called "Courage, brothers." Anyone who made a mistake, he said, would be called forward and struck with a wooden paddle.
The student said he had been struck eight times. Two days later, he said, the pledges were taken to a high school track, made to run laps and directed to again recite the poem. He said he was paddled 12 more times, breaking the skin.
After the paddling, pledges were ordered to stand on fellow pledges' injured buttocks.
The student, who did not have health insurance, said he attempted to treat his injuries at home with Vaseline, cocoa butter, Neosporin and hydrogen peroxide. He developed a fever and joint pain, suspected an infection and went to the emergency room. It was 10 days after the visit to the track.
The university issued a cease-and-desist order against Omega Psi Phi and launched an investigation. When officials learned that the chapter was still attempting to host parties and other activities, they suspended recognition through the 2019-2020 school year.
The former officers of the chapter could not be reached for comment. The student who was hospitalized took a medical withdrawal from his classes for the semester, citing his injuries and mental stress.
It was not the chapter's first suspension. In the 1990s, a former pledge said he had been beaten with a hammer, a horsehair whip, a broken chair leg and other weapons, and the university shut Omega Psi Phi down for five years. The student sued the fraternity and won a $375,000 judgment.
An attorney for the national Omega Psi Phi organization says it suspended its pledging process nationwide last fall to consider safety improvements.
Attorney Michael Lyles says pledging has resumed with new safeguards. Prospective brothers now are required to apply online so they can be monitored by regional and national officials. Pledges are supposed to take online anti-hazing training. The fraternity has hired an official to oversee compliance.
Lyles says Omega Psi Phi is trying to attract more pledges with better grades and records of accomplishment, because officials believe those students are less likely to haze or be hazed.
"The main challenge is that young people who want to associate themselves with others will allow themselves to go through all manner of things to be part of a group," Lyles said. "That need kind of overrides common sense."
He said the fraternity is watching and providing alternatives "so that students don't see the need to engage in violence on each other."
Hazing can create close bonds between victims and perpetrators — a phenomenon likened to Stockholm Syndrome. Forcing pledges to endure difficult experiences together can foster social cohesion.
Leaders of a group might haze because it was done to them when they joined. Others might be sadists, said Parks, the Wake Forest professor.
Nuwer, the author, has recorded 17 deaths nationwide since 2011 in which hazing was alleged or implicated. The most widely publicized was the death in February 2011 of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion, who prosecutors say was punched and kicked more than 100 times by fellow band members as he tried to run the length of a bus after a football game in Orlando.
Band member Dante Martin, accused of organizing the ritual known as "Crossing Bus C," was convicted in October of manslaughter and three counts of hazing. He faces up to 22 years in prison at his sentencing in January. Another band member is serving a year in prison. Nine more have been sentenced to probation and community service, and three others await trial.
Beyond the immediate dangers of physical violence, extreme drinking and drug use, hazing can leave victims with post-traumatic stress disorder, panic attacks and depression. Several of the deaths listed by Nuwer are suicides.
Parks said the experience of pledging a fraternity can strip a person of his sense of identity. He believes the national Greek organizations bear the greatest responsibility for preventing hazing, but says universities should encourage more positive bonding experiences.
But beyond banning all student organizations, Parks says, there's no clear way to eliminate the practice. "I don't think anybody's got a really good answer."
The records also showed some alleged cases of hazing at sorority chapters. In one case, a sorority at UMBC blindfolded its pledges and drove them to unknown locations late at night, screamed at them while they recited trivia about the organization, and deprived them of sleep.
Several Maryland universities have stepped up anti-hazing education.
At Towson, for example, members of fraternities, sororities, athletic groups, bands and other student organizations are required to complete an anti-hazing course. Speakers this semester included an attorney who specializes in hazing cases to show students that lawsuits are possible. The university also sponsored a contest in which students made paddles bearing anti-hazing messages.
Salisbury University has screened "Haze," a documentary about drinking and hazing, and brought an anti-hazing speaker to campus. Salisbury, Towson and the University of Maryland, College Park post online the names of fraternities and sororities that have lost recognition for violating university policies.
The University of Maryland formed a task force two years ago to review hazing cases and to offer recommendations. Most have centered on new educational and awareness programs. Matt Supple, director of fraternity and sorority life at the university, says his office encourages students to report hazing to a hotline the university has established for that purpose.
Reporting problems remains a challenge. Justin Stuart, a pledge to the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at Salisbury in 2012, was required to stand in a trash can full of ice water, beaten with a paddle, driven blindfolded in a speeding car and forced to listen over and over to a German heavy metal song at high volume, according to his attorney.
But when Stuart told authorities about the treatment, his attorney said, word spread and he was harassed. He ultimately transferred to the University of Maryland.
Sigma Alpha Epsilon closed the Salisbury chapter — a spokesman for the national organization blamed a "cultural issue" — and suspended pledging at all other chapters. Spokesman Brandon Weghorst said the fraternity has zero tolerance for hazing. The chapter's former officers declined to comment.
Stuart's attorney, Douglas E. Fierberg of Washington, said that "the promise of fraternity brotherhood is very alluring to young men and women who are away from home and at college."
State Sen. Jamie Raskin read about Stuart's experience in a report on hazing by Bloomberg News. The Montgomery County Democrat introduced legislation this year that would have increased the criminal fine for hazing from $500 to $5,000.
Stuart's father testified in support of the bill, and the University System of Maryland said it might serve as a deterrent. But the measure failed to get as far as a committee vote.
"People were not sufficiently convinced that there was a big problem right now," Raskin said. He said he is unlikely to reintroduce the bill again unless he feels more confident other lawmakers will support it.
"Legislatures tend to act when there are gory details about vivid events," he said. "We certainly had one, the case from Salisbury, but people thought that it might be an isolated occurrence.
"I don't want to wait around for some irrevocable event or tragedy to take place."
Turn for the worse
The fall 2011 pledging season at the Pi Lambda Phi chapter at Towson started "fairly innocuously," said Kevin Kutner, one of those who hoped to join the fraternity.
During an early session, he said, pledges were blindfolded with ties, driven to a field on Joppa Road, stripped of their wallets and cellphones and told to find their way back to campus. They were also told to memorize a quotation from a fraternity founder that had been written on handkerchiefs nailed to trees along the roadway.
"It was bonding," Kutner said. "I'm 18 years old, I'm from Philly, I don't know a single person in this entire state, you know? So I'm having the time of my life."
But as the season progressed, Kutner said, the activities took a turn for the worse. In one session, pledges were directed to sit on a basement floor and cross their arms over their chests, constricting their lungs for up to seven hours as they listened to a recording of babies screaming.
During Hell Week, former pledges said, they were given an assortment of rules — some silly, such as a prohibition against walking on grass, and others more serious. They were told they could not sleep, could not go to their dorm rooms and could not shower. They were required to wear suits and ties and to carry several specific items, including 37 cents in change, condoms and cigarettes — in case a brother wanted to smoke.
The way the demands escalated made it difficult to leave, former pledges said. Jeff Cusick describes a process with four stages. In the initial "honeymoon phase," he says, the brothers acted as if they were the pledges' best friends. In phase two, the pledges might be asked to clean a house or do another activity that might be seen as demeaning.
In phase three, Cusick said, the pledges were hazed more seriously, with mental and physical ordeals such as extreme exercise or drinking the bitter concoction. At that point, Cusick said, pledges who wanted to leave were told by fraternity members that leaving would hurt their pledge brothers and their chances of being initiated.
"And you're like, 'Right, I owe something to these men, so we'll do this,'" Cusick said. "Phase four, you're like, 'I don't even care about those men anymore. I am done, I am leaving.' And they're like, 'Well, think about this' — and this is in normally what they call Hell Week — 'in one week you'll be done, and you'll be a brother forever, so make it through this one week and you have this.'"
The president and rush chairman of the Towson chapter of Pi Lambda Phi during fall 2011 declined to comment. Patrick Spanner, director of chapter operations for the national fraternity, said he was unfamiliar with the specifics of the Towson case and also declined to comment. He confirmed that the fraternity's board revoked the Towson chapter's charter after finding that it had violated the Pi Lambda Phi risk management policy.
A new Pi Lambda Phi chapter formed at Towson this year with entirely new members and leadership.
A new start
The former Pi Lambda Phi pledges said that after Notaro's hospitalization, when university and fraternity officials began to investigate, they initially denied having been hazed. And they said they were even eager to begin hazing new pledges themselves.
But as the investigation wore on for months, they ultimately opened up to investigators and realized that they wanted to create a new organization built on more than hazing. Twelve of the 20 former pledges, including Notaro, formed a chapter of Theta Chi in 2012.
With more than 100 members, it's now larger than any other chapter on Towson's campus, and this year was named chapter of the year at the fraternity's national convention.
More than 100 students wanted to join the organization this year, the founders said, which allowed them to be selective. They sought pledges who are involved in leadership activities on campus and who have high grade point averages.
And they are leading by example. Kutner, for instance, is now president of the Towson student body.
The Theta Chi brothers test pledges on the history of the fraternity. They tell prospective members they were hazed and won't tolerate it in the organization.
Lenno, the director of fraternity and sorority life at Towson, says the chapter is the best he has seen in his career overseeing Greek life — not only for its current success, but because of how it started.
"I have an 11-year-old son, and if my son grew up to be like the president of this chapter, I'd be proud," he said.
Though most who endure hazing do not speak about it publicly, Theta Chi's founders say they want others to learn from their experience.
Said Kutner, "I think I learned a lot about human nature, I learned a lot about group mentality.
"It was so hard when the whole group was silent to be the one to stand up against something. In my head I said I should stand up and say something, and if I did, that would have meant something. And so I think it taught me that, stand up when others are too afraid to, because you'll inspire others to do the same."