FAMU Says It's Not To Blame For Band Drum Major's Hazing Death

Sep 11, 2012

In the nine months since Champion death, FAMU has dealt with the arrest and felony charges for 12 former band members, the resignation of the school’s longtime band director and university president, as well as negative publicity. And students like Rance Rutherford say almost everywhere they go, people want to know what’s going on:

“It was like, a million questions about the university, about what’s going on. People asking me, are you in the band? You know me and my peers who went off-campus this summer, we see how big of an impact the world thinks of this incident.”

Rutherford spent his summer on internship at General Electric in North Carolina. Champion died last November in Orlando following a hazing ritual aboard a bus.  His death continues to resound on the campus. FAMU has put in place several anti-hazing measures and even created an anti-hazing website, called StopHazingAtFAMU.com, where students can report incidents anonymously.

The school also rolled out new rules for student organization membership, like higher GPA's, community service hours and participating in university anti-hazing seminars.

“A lot of these changes are good, they don’t actually restrict the development of the student, but just restrict how fast we can get the students involved in organization," said Jamaal Rose, a political science major who will be graduating from FAMU in December.

FAMU is trying to move on from Champion’s death but doing so is proving to be awkward for university officials. In the school’s annual President’s Convocation, interim president Larry Robinson spoke about the future of the school and the impact of Champion’s death.

“Since November 2011 the university has gone through some very difficult times as a result of the unfortunate hazing incident in Orlando. Students, you must be mindful that your actions, or in-actions, impact not only you but your university and its impact and legacy.”  

But at no time did he actually mention Robert Champion’s name. In June the school was added to a wrongful death suit brought by Champion’s family who say FAMU’s failure to stop the hazing in its famed Marching 100 band program ultimately led to Champion’s death.

Late Monday, FAMU’s lawyers responded to the lawsuit by making a motion for it to be dismissed.  They say, while tragic, Robert Champion’s death was his own fault.

School attorneys say Champion knew the dangers of hazing and had signed a pledge acknowledging that hazing is against the law. They also added in testimony from fellow band members like Keon Hollis, who testified to law enforcement that Champion knew what he was getting into when he boarded the bus to participate in the hazing ritual called, “Crossing Bus C”.

Keon Hollis: “I said, man, you don’t have to do it."

Officer: “Why did you do it?     

Hollis: “I did it for the same reason everyone else did it, to get respect…acceptance.”  

FAMU attorneys say Champion witnessed Hollis and a female band member participate in the beating ritual as he awaited his turn. And they say that as a band leader, Champion should have reported the planned hazing event to university staff or law enforcement.

“[I'm] shocked, but not surprised... Just disheartened that they blamed the dead guy," said Christopher Chestnut, the attorney for the Champion family.  “Our complaint is that the school is responsible for fostering a culture of hazing.”  

The two sides are slated to go to mediation in an attempt to settle the case, but Chestnut says the family is still pushing for a trial. The Champion’s say the school is at fault for failing to stop what they call a culture of hazing in FAMU’s band program, and are suing for an unknown amount of damages.

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Florida A&M University says it’s not responsible for the hazing death of a school band member. And it wants an Orlando judge to dismiss a wrongful death lawsuit brought by the family of band drum major Robert Champion. Lynn Hatter reports the school laid out its case for dismissal in court documents filed late Monday.

Lawyers for Florida A&M University say 26-year-old Robert Champion knew the dangers of hazing and had signed a pledge acknowledging that hazing is against the law. The attorney’s say Champion witnessed two other band members participate in the beating ritual aboard a bus following a November football game in Orlando. FAMU’s lawyers also say that as a band leader, Champion should have reported the planned hazing event to university staff or law enforcement.

Champion’s family says FAMU is partly responsible for Champion’s death because it failed to stop hazing within the school’s marching band program.

The family is seeking damages but both sides have agreed to go to mediation, where they may try to reach a settlement.