The University of Texas at Austin has suspended the Texas Cowboys spirit group from campus for six years following an investigation into alleged hazing during a retreat last fall, the night before a new member was injured in a car accident and later died from his injuries.
The university’s Office of the Dean of Students handed down the six-year suspension to the registered student organization on Wednesday, along with two years of probation after reinstatement and other sanctions, according to a discipline report obtained by ABC News.
The Texas Cowboys, a decades-old honorary men’s service and spirit organization at the University of Texas at Austin, known for firing a cannon at home football games, has the option to accept the sanctions, appeal the decision or request a formal hearing before a “university hearing officer,” according to the report.
“The organization still has an opportunity to appeal, and the case will be judged on its facts,” the university’s president, Gregory Fenves, said in a statement Thursday. “Let me make clear — there is no place for hazing at the University of Texas.”
The Texas Cowboys Alumni Association said its leaders are “reviewing their options and will make a decision shortly on how to proceed.”
“We are disappointed by the university’s decision today, and are saddened that it may prevent our organization from continuing this legacy of service,” the group said in a statement Wednesday. “Throughout the investigation, our entire organization has been completely transparent, engaged and accessible.”
(New members were subjected to) multiple forms of hazing including physical brutality, physical activity, forced ingestion of unwanted substances, coerced consumption of alcohol and degradation.
School officials conducted an investigation and ultimately found, “by a preponderance of evidence,” that new members of the Texas Cowboys were subjected to “multiple forms of hazing, including physical brutality, physical activity, forced ingestion of unwanted substances, coerced consumption of alcohol and degradation” during the new member retreat on the night of Sept. 29, 2018, according to the report.
The following morning, several Texas Cowboys members were involved in a car accident while driving back to Austin. A new member, Nicholas Cumberland, was injured in the crash and died from his injuries a month later.
“His death was a tragedy felt throughout the university community,” Fenves said. “More than anything, it was an unimaginable loss for his parents, family and friends.”
Cumberland’s family contacted the University of Texas at Austin in mid-November to raise concerns they had regarding the student organization and the recent off-campus retreat, prompting the investigation. Cumberland, 21, was in the fall semester of his junior year when he joined the Texas Cowboys.
His family provided school officials with group text messages obtained from his phone and a shopping list of items new members were apparently instructed to bring to the retreat location, which is referred to as the “ranch,” including a live chicken, live hamster, gallons of milk, bottles of hot sauce, large quantities of food, tobacco and copious amounts of alcohol, according to the report.
The Cumberland family told school officials several members of the Texas Cowboys informed them of hazing activities that took place at the retreat the night of Sept. 29 and continued into the early morning hours of Sept. 30, the report states.
School officials subsequently conducted interviews with dozens of university students who were listed as new and active members of the organization, including three students named by the Cumberland family, according to the report.
During the interviews, members stated they were forced or coerced to chug a gallon of milk and consume cat food, spam, hot sauce, minced garlic and whole onions. Members, including several under the legal drinking age, were also forced or coerced to drink alcohol, including “finishing a bag of wine and shotgunning beers,” according to the report.
Members were allegedly subjected to various physical activities, including playing football and doing the so-called Oklahoma drill during the game, as well as going into the cannon’s trailer and being dropped off a distance away from the off-campus retreat site to find their way back together.
They additionally said they participated in relay races, barrel rolls, bear crawls and human wheelbarrow races and worked on throwing football passes to hit people with accuracy, according to the report. Members stated they were subjected to degradation, including having chips and mustard poured on their shirts before competing in the relay race, according to the report.
One new member was coerced into “biting the head off a live hamster” at the retreat, which members stated has been a tradition of the Texas Cowboys initiation process for years, according to the report.
Meanwhile, per the report, active members who were also in fraternities branched off separately during the retreat and engaged in hazing behavior directed at their own fraternity brothers who were new to the Texas Cowboys, including beating them with a wooden stick or a paddle.
The Cumberland family told school officials they were informed their son, who was an active member in the Kappa Sigma fraternity chapter at the University of Texas at Austin, was paddled during the Texas Cowboys retreat and still had “significant, specific bruising on his buttocks nearly a month after the retreat and car accident,” according to the report.
The Texas Cowboys’ behavior at the retreat, and at the other specific occasions discovered in the course of this investigation, does in fact meet the institutional definition of hazing.
A representative from Kappa Sigma’s national headquarters did not respond to ABC News’ requests for comment.
In October, the Texas Cowboys Alumni Association launched an internal investigation into the student organization that apparently centered around the retreat and the subsequent car accident. The alumni association told officials at the University of Texas at Austin it had reprimanded or expelled several members as a result of the probe, according to the report.
The overall plan was to leave the retreat location in the early morning and head back to campus, according to the report, which said several members confirmed they had a sober driver and that none of the members reported being prevented from sleeping during the retreat.
The schools says that the conduct detailed in the report flouts university policies barring hazing, harmful behavior and alcohol misconduct. In addition to the six-year suspension and two-year probationary period, the university’s Office of the Dean of Students has permanently prohibited the Texas Cowboys from having separate student organization sub-groups and from using live animals for events or other purposes.
All incoming new member classes of the Texas Cowboys will be required to complete an alcohol education program through the university and must read the book “The Cowboy’s Secret” about Gave Higgins, a University of Texas at Austin student who died at his Texas Cowboys new member retreat in 1995.
Each new member will also be required to write a two-page reflection paper on the book that must be approved by the organization’s adviser and sent to the university’s Office of the Dean of Students, according to the report.
“Based on the totality of circumstances, even if the car accident had not occurred, it is important to note that the Texas Cowboys’ behavior at the retreat, and at the other specific occasions discovered in the course of this investigation, does in fact meet the institutional definition of hazing,” the report stated.
“However, as with many accidents, the car accident that led to Nicholas Cumberland’s death could have been avoided had there been adequate risk management practices in place, such as providing transportation to all members and choosing a safer location, closer to campus.”
The Texas Cowboys Alumni Association said the actions of certain student members who violated university policies “did not align with our organization’s standards — and they do not represent the heart and soul of our organization.”
“However, hazing did not cause the car accident that took Nicky Cumberland’s life,” the group added. “The university’s ruling expressly determined that sleep deprivation did not occur at the retreat.”