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Students on the quad in front of McKeldin Mall on the University of Maryland’s campus

UMD had previously concealed the details of its hazing investigation but revealed some allegations in a court filing on Friday.

Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post via Getty Images

When the University of Maryland suspended 37 fraternities and sororities earlier this month, the outcry from the chapters—and their national affiliates—was swift. Four fraternities went so far as to file a motion in federal court for a temporary restraining order that would end the blanket suspension.

Though administrators initially declined to share details about what prompted the suspension, new legal filings revealed reports of intense physical and psychological abuse—at least at some of the chapters. Following an investigation, the university reversed the suspension for all but five Greek organizations. As a result, the four fraternities have withdrawn their request for a temporary restraining order.

But the legal tussle isn’t over yet; the fraternities say they will not toss out their lawsuit against the university, which claims among other things that the suspension violated their rights to free speech and due process.

Blanket Suspension

The university initially suspended all 37 of the Interfraternity Council and Panhellenic Association organizations on campus on March 1, prohibiting their members from hosting events with alcohol or from communicating with new members about Greek life.

On March 13, UMD’s chapters of Theta Chi, Kappa Alpha Order, Alpha Sigma Phi, and Alpha Tau Omega—as well as three unnamed fraternity brothers—filed the motion for a temporary restraining order, requesting the reversal of the blanket suspension. The motion, like the lawsuit, argued that the ban violated their First Amendment rights, and that they were denied due process when officials declined to tell them what Student Code of Conduct policies they had allegedly broken.

Two days later, UMD ended the suspension of most of the Greek organizations, prompting the plaintiffs to drop the motion and request the cancellation of a hearing scheduled for Monday afternoon.

“Because the University of Maryland responded to our scheduled temporary restraining order request by lifting the bans on Greek life, there is no longer a need for a hearing today,” the Fraternity Forward Coalition, an advocacy group whose members include the four fraternities that are plaintiffs in the case, told Inside Higher Ed in an email on Monday. “Our client’s lawsuit seeking a declaratory judgment from the administrators who systematically violated the civil liberties of thousands of students remains ongoing. In light of new information, we expect to amend the complaint and add new facts to our petition soon, which could add time to the process.”

“Dangerous Rituals”

The legal challenge brought to light new information about the circumstances that led to the suspension and subsequent investigation.

According to a countermotion filed by the State Attorney General’s office, which is representing the public university, the Office of Student Conduct received at least seven reports of hazing and alcohol abuse among IFC and PHA chapters over the course of one week at the end of February. One report came from an individual who had been personally subjected to hazing, and two more were from parents of students who had been hazed.

The reports alleged that new and prospective members of multiple fraternities were variously beaten, spit upon, and burned with cigarettes and torches. They were also forced to lie on nails, drink vodka while being denied access to water, clean chapter members’ houses, consume nonedible substances, including urine, and perform exercises—such as planks and wall sits—for hours on end in a ritual known as a “line-up,” among other things, according to the countermotion.

“[T]here were allegations of widespread physical abuse and dangerous rituals, severe mental and emotional distress, financial exploitation and forced labor, drug and alcohol abuse, and a general atmosphere of fear and intimidation … the allegations included criminal acts that are against Maryland law and University policy,” the memo stated. (Hazing is a misdemeanor in Maryland.)

The countermotion also noted that when UMD officials met with fraternity leaders ahead of the suspension, they “did not provide any additional substantive information that suggested that they were not engaged in the alleged misconduct, nor did they provide further information to clarify which fraternities or sororities were responsible for the allegations.”

Two students were also transported off-campus for alcohol-related illnesses on the morning of March 1, according to the court filing, and the university found an “uptick” in the number of IFC and PHA members who went to the University Health Center and the Counseling Center during the month of February.

Because of the substantial amount of evidence indicating a trend of hazing among IFC and PHA groups, the university decided to put a blanket ban in place, the countermotion noted.

In the document, UMD’s lawyers called the suspension the “least restrictive alternative possible in achieving its compelling interest of promptly identifying any chapters engaging in potentially life-threatening activities, including hazing, while simultaneously preventing new or prospective chapter members from harm.”

Following the ban, the university hired the outside consulting firm INCompliance to conduct a week of interviews with 150 fraternity and sorority members from all 37 organizations. At the conclusion of the interviews, UMD lifted the suspension for all but five fraternities: Lambda Chi Alpha, Phi Sigma Kappa, Sigma Nu, Zeta Beta Tau and Kappa Alpha Order, one of the plaintiffs in the civil case. Further investigation into those five chapters is underway.

In its countermotion, UMD disputed the plaintiffs’ claims that chapters were not afforded due process, arguing that the university had met with fraternity and sorority members to inform them of the allegations in late February, ahead of the suspension.

The Fraternity Forward Coalition has claimed that the investigators used “disturbing” strategies, including not allowing students to have advisers in the room with them during interviews. The organization also said that students were forced to hand over their cell phones so that investigators could review text messages and other personal data.

UMD’s countermotion last Friday argued that both those claims were false and that the lawyers who had filed the motion for the restraining order had, in fact, served as advisers to some of the interviewees.

In response to a request for comment on Friday, a UMD spokesperson directed Inside Higher Ed to the university’s media statement on the suspensions being lifted.

History of Hazing?

UMD’s Greek life system does not have an especially egregious track record of hazing, according to Hank Nuwer, a journalist who tracks hazing deaths on U.S. college campuses. He noted that in 2002, the university gained national attention for the death of Daniel Reardon, a freshman who died from alcohol poisoning after drinking excessively at a fraternity “bid night” celebration, although a member of Reardon’s fraternity at the time denied hazing was involved.

“[From] 2002 to about 2004, there was an impetus to clean up the Greek life at Maryland” inspired by Reardon’s death, Nuwer said.

According to one UMD alum, though, the Greek life system has long been a hotbed for hazing, sexual abuse, bigotry and other bad behavior. Lucy Julia Taylor runs the podcast SNAPPED, which recounts her own experience joining and later dropping out of a UMD sorority in 2017, as well as other student and alumni experiences. In a special on hazing, she spoke with a recent UMD graduate who had been physically abused while pledging a fraternity—and who later assaulted pledges as a fraternity brother.

An advocate for the abolition of Greek life, Taylor had hoped UMD’s suspension of all IFC and PHA organizations would be a preliminary step toward getting rid of the campus’s fraternities and sororities altogether.

“We see over and over again: Students dying, the next day someone’s in a coma. These things are happening nationwide, so it’s clearly not an issue of a bad apple,” she told Inside Higher Ed. “Students will feel more willing to report sexual assault [or] other hazing if Greek life is off campus, because what Greek life does really well is create this culture of secrecy where no one wants to be the snitch.”

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