Family asks UT for anti-hazing reforms after student’s death

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — The family of UT student Nicky Cumberland, who died in fall 2018 after injuries he received on the way home from a Texas Cowboys retreat, is asking the University of Texas at Austin for specific reforms to prevent hazing and to change the culture at the Texas Cowboys. 

“Transparency would have prevented Nicky’s meaningless death,” said his father Shawn Cumberland in a letter which called for more transparency from student organizations on campus. 

KXAN obtained a copy of the letter sent over the weekend to UT Austin president Gregory Fenves as well as many other members of the university’s leadership.

Nicky Cumberland, a third-year student at UT, joined the Texas Cowboys in the fall of 2018. The Cowboys are an all-men student service organization known for wearing cowboy attire at UT games and for operating Smokey the Cannon there. 

It wasn’t until Nicky was “tapped” to become a Cowboy that his family understood “the magnitude of the honor of being selected,” the letter said. 

On Sept. 30, Nicky was a passenger in a car with several other students on the way back from a Cowboy’s retreat when the Texas Department of Transportation said the driver fell asleep and rolled over into a ditch, ejecting Nicky from the vehicle. The crash happened in Lampasas County on U.S. 183 just outside of Lometa, and Cumberland was transported to Temple where he remained in the hospital. Nicky was transferred to Houston and according to his obituary, he died there on October 30. 

“I can’t describe the amount of grief and pain that we’re going through because of it.,” Shawn Cumberland said.

Texas Cowboys Reaction 

The Texas Cowboys Alumni Association sent KXAN a statement Monday explaining that it had launched its own third-party investigation into what happened as soon as they heard of the accident. That investigation found that neither hazing nor alcohol was “playing any part in the accident.”

However, Eddie Lopez, the president of the Texas Cowboys Board of Directors, said that their organization did learn about behavior on the weekend of the accident that concerned them and that the Texas Cowboy’s judiciary board then took action. 

The alumni association noted, “there was misconduct that occurred at the retreat that did not align with the standards of the Texas Cowboys, and was in direct violation both of our values and the University’s policy against hazing.”

The judiciary board in November unanimously decided to suspend three students and expel four students from the Texas Cowboys organization. 

The alumni association said they would not go into specifics about why the students were disciplined but added that they will continue to work with UT and allow them to finish their investigations. 

“As an organization, The Texas Cowboys Alumni Association and students remains deeply saddened by the loss of Nicky Cumberland,” the statement Monday said. “Our hearts go out to his family, and we support their efforts to ensure that something positive comes from this tragedy.”

Family’s allegations of hazing

Both the student conduct investigation at UT and the criminal investigation by the University of Texas Police Department into allegations of hazing against the Texas Cowboys are still ongoing as of Monday.

Since the crash, the Cumberland family has come to believe hazing at the Cowboys retreat may have played a role in their son’s death, sharing allegations of hazing they’ve learned with UT. The family told KXAN that at the Cowboy’s retreat, Nicky and other members were forced to stay up doing activities until 3 a.m. and were then sent to make the two-hour drive back to campus around 4 a.m.

“I talked to current Cowboys who told me that the hazing had occurred [at the retreat], I talked to alumni who told me about what happened when they were there,” Shawn explained. 

“I’m told [Nicky] was paddled at this event,” Shawn continued.

“Does that mean it happens at every event? I can’t say that, I can’t conclude that, but they’ve got a history they’ve got lore,” Shawn said of the Cowboys. 

He explained that when he and his wife were in the hospital with Nicky weeks after the crash, they noticed marks that had been on him which were “unusual in their design and a straight line sort  of design.” Now Nicky’s family believes those marks came from Nicky being paddled. 

In addition to the paddling, the Cumberland have heard other details about the retreat which they believe to be hazing. 

Nicky’s family saw the list of items that were purchased for that retreat, they included alcohol (beyond just beer, the family said) and large amounts of tobacco. This concerned family members because the Cowboys were found years ago to have made members eat food laced with tobacco. 

Additionally, the Cumberland family said they heard from two separate Cowboys that one member at the retreat was asked to bite the head off of a live hamster. 

Shawn Cumberland was especially concerned that while more senior members of The Cowboys were bused out to this retreat, the younger members, including Nicky, were asked to drive themselves and arrange their own transportation.

“After the last campfire ended at 3 a.m. [The Cowboys] allowed these gentlemen after an exhausting day full of things we just outlined and being through a bunch of physical and emotional stress to get behind the wheel of a car and embark on a multi-hour drive back to Austin in the 4 a.m. time frame,” Shawn Cumberland said. “And that sleep deprivation is hazing as well.”

“Following Nicky’s senseless death, I’ve learned much more about The Cowboys and their history,” said Shawn Cumberland in the letter. Nicky’s family said it talked to Cowboy alumni who “spoke negatively of the violent paddling they received.”

“Right now, there’s a movement across the country of parents who’ve lost their children who’ve been very active in trying to institute change on hazing,” Shawn explained.

Additionally, the family said they have been in touch with Ruth Harten, whose son Gabe Higgins, a UT sophomore,  drowned in the Colorado River after drinking during a Cowboy’s initiation ceremony in 1995. 

After Higgins’ death, the Texas Cowboys group was banned for five years. At the time, UT officials said there was no evidence the pledges were forced to swim in the river, but there was extensive hazing including paddling and eating hot dogs covered with tobacco.

Nicky’s family also read Tim Taliaferro’s article “When the Smoke Cleared, the Rise, Fall and Return of the Texas Cowboys,” and added that its information suggests branding of students’ chests continued past the 1940s, contrary to what the article states. 

The family has also met with members of different fraternities at UT as well as academics who study hazing and parents of students across the country who were victims of hazing.

Shawn Cumberland said that of the members of UT fraternities he’s met with, “with very limited exceptions, they stated that hazing exists today within their organizations, they don’t like it, they wish things were different, and there’s nothing they can do about it.”

Additionally, Shawn noted that while those who witness hazing are supposed to report it, there is seldom punishment for those who choose to remain silent. 

“Everyone kind of knows that it’s not enforced,” Shawn Cumberland said. “If you have anything to have a bullseye on, its the code of silence, that’s my target right there.”

Family proposes changes to The Cowboys

  • The family says that based on what it learned happened at the Cowboy’s retreat in the fall of 2018 “there can be no choice but to ban The Cowboys again for an appropriate amount of time.”
  • However, rather than permanently removing the student organization, the family would like to see The Cowboys restructured into “the staunch anti-hazing organization on campus.” The family calls for changes to The Cowboy’s motto to reflect a commitment to stopping hazing.
  • A new reform committee for The Cowboys should be formed, including Ruth Harten and a representative for Nicky, the family said. 
  • Nicky’s family calls for the Cowboys to become coed and says the organization should have both Greek and non-Greek members as well. “The endzone space on the field rightfully belongs to the entire student body,” his family said.
  • Family calls for the academic performance requirement to be raised above the current GPA minimum of 2.5.
  • Every Cowboy should be required to read Ruth Harten’s book about the hazing she believed her son experienced called, “The Cowboy’s Secret.”
  • Members should quickly report any hazing they see directly to the Dean of Students and provide reports each semester on all reported and rumored hazing. 
  • The Cowboys’ website should outline the details of prior hazing history of the organization “with a strong repudiation of such behavior moving forward.”
  • The family calls for places in Cowboys’ traditions to mark the lives of Gabe Higgins and Nicky Cumberland. 

Family requests university-wide reforms

  • Nicky’s family called for enforcement to end the “Code of Silence,” a practice by student groups which prevents members from talking about activities that happen within their groups. The family explained that while the “Code of Silence” is already against Texas law and UT policy, there needs to be more enforcement of this in order to stop hazing.
  • Students who witness but fail to report hazing should be subject to expulsion, the family said. It suggested creating a reasonable window after hazing — perhaps within 10 days — in which students need to report hazing if they’ve seen it. 
  • Removing conflicts of interest from the group of people punishing or deciding sanctions against student groups. Nicky’s father said, for example, that alumni who have experienced or participated in branding or paddling may have “compromised credibility” when asked to punish organizations accused of branding or paddling. 
  • The family calls for stopping the removal of cell phones during events with student organizations. “The cell phone represents an important possible lifeline for a student to call for help,” Nicky’s family said. “Further, today’s phones also serve to record (or deter) potential bad acts.”

Responses 

On Monday, a statement from the Texas Cowboys Alumni Association said:

“We have updated The University on our findings and actions taken. We will continue to work with them as they conduct their own investigation and consider the recommendations suggested by Mr. Cumberland.”

“I believe that while the Cowboys are imperfect and there are some things that we are not proud of, most of us know that some things that happened are wrong and want to make sure we have a safe environment for all Cowboys,” said a current member of the Cowboys who wanted to remain anonymous. 

That member hopes whatever happens going forward with the investigations into the Cowboys, that the organization is not asked to pause for a semester.

“Taking away an organization for an entire semester has a lot of problems, and we think we can find a way to make it work without taking a semester off,” he said, noting that the Cowboys volunteer regularly with community organizations like the Arc of the Capital Area and don’t want to let down the community groups they work with. 

“I really do think the organization espouses Nicky’s values and I hope that especially after this tragedy that we never come close to compromising them again,” the Cowboys member said.  

Some UT students, like Colton Becker, see the Cumberland’s letter as part of a necessary moment for the university to honestly evaluate how it deals with hazing.

“I hope that UT takes it seriously and looks carefully at it, and I believe they will, and I think the Cowboys will as well, and I think we owe it to the family to do that,” Becker said. 

In addition to being UT’s President of Student Government, Becker also knew Nicky Cumberland personally 

“He was a very kind, uplifting positive person, he had a soul, it’s rare that you find someone who is so consistently generous and considerate and courteous and kind as Nicky,” Becker said. 

Becker previously served as a vice president on UT’s Interfraternity Council and acknowledged that he’s heard about hazing from student organizations on campus. 

“It’s pervasive,” Becker said. “I’m an optimist and I can see the progress that we’ve made, the hazing that people engaged in 60, 70 years ago is largely different from the types of hazing that we see today, and so I have faith that we’ll continue to move in the right direction.”

Becker said that he was surprised to learn of the hazing allegations that came up at the 2018 Cowboys retreat, and he believes that some members of the Cowboys organization were surprised to hear about the allegations too.

“It’s a conversation that we always need to be having on campus, especially if the hazing still exists which it does,” Becker said. “I think in light of this tragedy, people are more attuned to it and students will hopefully — my hope is that they’ll read [the Cumberland’s letter] and they’ll be better positioned in light of this tragedy to understand the impact of hazing and the toll it takes on individuals and families and organizations.”

UT Austin responded to KXAN with a statement Monday saying that UT President Gregory Fenves and Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly received Shawn Cumberland’s letter and plan to follow up with him directly. 

“His letter addresses issues of great importance to us and our students,” said UT spokesperson J.B. Bird in the statement. “We’re grateful for Mr. Cumberland’s commitment to making our community safer.”

Nicky’s father, Shawn Cumberland, said he spoke with one young man who talked to them about what went on at the Cowboys’ retreat just before the crash, recalling that this young man, “subsequently asked me with a tone of futility, ‘what can one guy alone do?'”

Shawn Cumberland is also an alum of UT. In the letter, he expressed fondness for the University and a hope that the university could work with his family on these changes so that future generations of his family could proudly attend too. 

“It’s a university that we love and we believe this would be reflective of Nicky’s wishes,” Shawn said.

He expects that it will take UT leadership some time to “digest and process his letter,” eventually and his family hopes to be invited back to talk with UT as discussions begin on how to prevent hazing.  

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