Charges in FAMU band member death bring hazing back into focus

May 4, 2012

Most of the people charged in the hazing death of a Florida A & M University drum major have been taken into custody. Lynn Hatter reports the arrests come after state law enforcement authorities announced charges against 13 people on Wednesday. The arrests have some people beginning to wonder what’s next in the fate of FAMU’s fabled band program.

Some people may not have heard about Florida A&M University, but the sound of its band is almost unmistakable.

The ensemble performs everything from classic Sousa marches, to Motown. From presidential inaugural parades, to halftime shows, the FAMU Marching 100 has done it all.  But all that acclaim came to a screeching halt in November. State Attorney Lawson Lamar announced that 13 people are being charged in the hazing death of FAMU Marching 100 Band Drum major Robert Champion.

“I have come to believe that hazing is a term for bullying. It’s bullying with a tradition. A tradition that we can’t bear in America.” 

Back in November Champion  was beaten in an hazing ritual aboard a bus following a football game. He later died from his injuries. The case has brought attention to the issue of hazing, and to FAMU and its band. Media reports have likened hazing to only occurring within “black” organizations. But the reality, says Hazing Expert Hank Nuwer, is that hazing occurs everywhere.

 “If someone dies in an alcohol incident, which is the primary cause in so-called integrated fraternities, it’s usually an horrific death just like the paddlings and beatings…it’s just that the high-profile deaths like Robert Champion, in an African-American band, have brought a lot of attention to that issue.”    

In fact, Florida’s anti-hazing law, which is being used in this case, came about because of hazing-related drowning death of a white, University of Miami student in 2001. But the Champion case did resurface a culture of hazing within the Marching 100 band that has plagued it for decades. In 1989 eight members of the band were jailed for hazing. A 2002 case resulted in the university, which is a public state institution, having to pay a $1.8 million civil judgment. And in the wake of Champion’s death, more incidents have been revealed just this past year.

After learning of the charges against the people involved in her son’s death, Robert’s mother, Pam Champion, said it’s time to clean house.

“The fact is you cannot go on as usual, business as usual, with that band and the functioning of that school.” 

Pam Champion also expressed frustration that the charges against the suspects in her son’s death aren’t stronger. Under Florida law, hazing that results in death is a 3rd degree felony, which carries a maximum prison sentence of 6 years.

At least two of the people charged in the case were Champion’s fellow drum majors.

In his first statements since news of the charges broke, Florida Governor Rick Scott expressed sympathy for the Champion family and the University as a whole, which has been shaken by the death. But he stopped short of agreeing that the Marching 100 band should go away forever.

 “I think we ought to finish and make sure that nothing like this will ever happen again. You know, the band has a great history, but we can’t afford to lose another individual like Robert Champion. So I think they ought to continue the process they’ve been going through with their task force, but I don’t think it’s ready yet.”  

In the six months since Champion died, the university has been embroiled in controversy. Governor Rick Scott has said the fate of the university depends on its ability to stamp out hazing. But it has struggled to respond to those public demands.

Soon after Champion’s death,  FAMU  tried to fire longtime band director  Dr. Julian White ost. It also tried to expel four students who it had learned were involved in Champion’s hazing. However both actions were reversed because state law enforcement agencies said the moves could jeopardize their investigations. 

FAMU has revised its anti-hazing policies, and students are required to report incidents within 24 hours. The University’s Board of Trustees even tried to convene a task force to study the issue, but that group of people has currently fallen apart due to disagreements within the board.

But Champion’s mother says the university’s efforts aren’t enough.

“We have to examine those people’s mindset. You have to clean house. You have to clean house to get that mess out of there.”

Meanwhile separate investigations into other hazing incidents are ongoing. And the Marching 100 band remains under indefinite suspension. FAMU Officials aren’t speaking publicly about the cases, but the university’s Board of Trustees Chairman Solomon Bader released a statement saying, “We are vigorously working to eradicate hazing from FAMU and doing everything within our power to ensure an incident like this never happens again.”