Nice Try, Freshmen

09.12.139:34 PM ET

Hazed and Confused: Maryland Cheer Squad on Probation

Towson University’s award-winning cheerleading team has been suspended for the entire football season over secretive accusations of hazing. Caroline Linton reports.

Towson University football will be playing its home opener on Friday, but the school’s cheerleading squad won’t be there to cheer the team on. Nor will the cheer squad be at the homecoming game on October 12. In fact, there won’t be any cheerleaders participating in any university exhibitions, either on campus and off, for the rest of the semester.

Towson's cheerleading squad—the 2013 All-Girl Cheer National Champions—have been suspended from competing for the entire fall semester due to allegations of hazing. As bad as that sounds, the team had originally been suspended from competition and practice in August, but they were granted a reprieve by a university appeals board on Wednesday. The appeals board said in its ruling this week that the team had not been aware of the specifics of the hazing policy, since they were not considered an athletic team. The squad will have to complete 650 hours of community service by the end of the fall semester, and they have been prohibited from participating in any campus and off-campus cheer events, although they are now allowed to practice. New members of the team do not have to participate in the community service.

“In general, we take any allegation of hazing very, very seriously and basically have a zero-tolerance policy toward hazing,” said Deb Moriarty, Towson’s vice president of student affairs. “We really want to hold our students, particularly our students who are in leadership positions around campus, to the highest standard of conduct.”

The university and the cheerleaders have kept quiet so far about the allegations. Cheerleading head coach Edy Pratt refused to comment, and squad members have remained tight-lipped. According to the university, the Office of Student Conduct received an anonymous call about the alleged hazing in early August and an investigation was launched on August 7. On August 23, the team was suspended for the entire 2013–14 academic year. No one was injured in the alleged hazing, the university said. 

The cheerleading squad decided to fight the allegations and presented an appeal to an appointed Student Appeal Committee, made up of four faculty members, two staff members, and two students. The identities of the members of Student Appeals Committee have not been released. The cheerleading squad’s status was peeled back from the academic-year suspension to social probation for the semester. Although there appeared to be evidence to support the allegations, Moriarty said there were “things that fell through the cracks in term of educational process” of the cheerleading team.

One cheerleader told the school’s independent newspaper, The Towerlight, at the time of the suspension that the squad would “like the support of the university at this time.”

Towson’s policy on hazing defines it as “any action taken on or off campus, to produce mental or physical discomfort, embarrassment, harassment or ridicule. Any mental or physical requirement, request or obligation placed upon any person that could cause pain, disgrace, or injury, or is personally degrading or violates any federal, state, local statute or university policy is also considered hazing.”

The school does go into a few specifics, saying that banned activities include, but are not limited to, the following instances: “creation of excessive fatigue; road trips; scavenger hunts; publicly wearing apparel that is conspicuous and not normally in good taste; engaging in public stunts and humiliating games and activities; late-night sessions that interfere with scholastic and occupational activities; calisthenics (push-ups, sit-ups, runs, etc.); line-ups (lining people up and harassing them verbally); running personal errands for the members; forced consumption of alcohol, illegal substances or food; and any other activities not consistent with the academic mission of the university.”

The squad has until September 17 to make a final appeal to the president to lift the entire suspension. There has been no indication as to whether they are considering a final appeal.

The probation period would put the squad back in action in time for the men’s basketball season and could allow it to compete in the National Championship in 2014. According to the National Cheerleading Association’s rulebook, a team must have at least eight members at the qualifying Summer Day Camp (which was held before the hazing allegations surfaced) and must submit its qualifying video by January 24, 2014. Documentation of the squad’s community service must be submitted by January 17. The 2014 College Nationals will be held in Daytona Beach, Florida, from April 9 to 13.

Moriarty said she has not received any phone calls from parents or students concerned about the hazing allegations, and she said that the only reaction she has heard in campus is “support for the school’s zero-tolerance policy for hazing.”

Jonathan Munshaw, the editor of The Towerlight, said the university’s silence had led some to believe around campus that “OK, obviously they did it.”

Munshaw, who has been covering the cheerleading story since it broke, said he believed Wednesday’s ruling was “fair to the cheerleaders,” especially if they “hadn’t really gotten the same hazing education as everyone else.” Hazing allegations, she said, “absolutely have happened before” at Towson.

“Any institution where there are organized student groups, it’s not unusual to hear of hazing,” Moriarty said.

In addition to the community-service requirement, the team will be required to attend Towson’s annual anti-hazing education week, which Moriarty said will take place at the end of September.