Tallahassee, FL – A criminal investigation into the hazing-related death of a Florida A & M University Marching 100 Drum major is underway. Lynn Hatter reports the case has shaken a school that has seen more than its share of bad headlines in previous years, and a band that's largely regarded as one of the best in the nation.
The FAMU Marching 100 is known for its halftime performances. It's done everything from Super Bowls, Presidential Inaugural Parades and even made appearances in music videos and at the Grammy awards. It's also the university's most visible recruiting tool, and students like Jamaal Rose question the future of FAMU, without its hallmark program.
"We take so much from what the band does. The band makes us come alive. When we drive out of class at eight o' clock and we hear the band still practicing, that's inspiration to people. And when you see the time and dedication they put in every day, that's inspirational. It's just heart-breaking to think what could we be without the 100, and the answer is, I don't know I don't think we could be the same university without the Marching 100."
In recent days a story has emerged about hazing in the band and in this case, that hazing may have caused the death of one of its drum majors. Robert Champion died following a November 19th football game in Orlando. Unofficial reports say Champion was either being punished for a mistake on the field or was trying to "Cross Bus C": a process where he would have gone from the front to the back of the bus while being beaten by fellow band members. Orange County Sheriff Officials initially said they did not suspect foul play. But Sheriff Jerry Demings says that view has changed.
"The investigation indicates that hazing was involved in the events that occurred prior to the 9-11 call for assistance."
Tony Alexander marched in the band from 2003-2005. He was in the percussion section.
"The Marching 100 did not do anything wrong. A certain group of people within the Marching 100 did."
Alexander says the situation is more tragic because so many lives have been ruined.
"You've got to realize that these are young kids that just if found guilty of hazing, just ruined the rest of their life over silliness. I mean, hazing has happened. But, unfortunately it had to happen and now this is the outcome."
Alexander isn't the only one who feels that way. Former drum major Phillip Stewart, who marched from 2002-2006, says hazing, while not condoned by the band, is still a big issue.
"It's not only a plague inside the Marching 100 but in a lot organizations. If everyone knows what's right it just needs to stop."
According to university statements, FAMU has received seven official reports of hazing in the past decade. However, far more students have been removed from the band or "given white letters" as it's called inside the Marching 100. Efforts to put a stop to hazing have largely failed. And the history goes back more than fifty years. University President James Ammons confirmed that 30 members of the band were suspended earlier in the month following reports of hazing.
"There were allegations that were turned over to the authorities and those investigations are ongoing at this time."
This year at least three parents wrote the university to call attention to physical and verbal abuse. In prior years, upperclassmen in entire sections have been removed. A 2002 case resulted in the university having to pay $1.8 million civil judgment. A 1998 case was brought before the state's then-university governing board, the Board of Regents. Back in 1989 eight members of the band were jailed for hazing. And reports from the Marching 100's founder, the late Dr. William P. Foster, show the legacy goes back almost as far as the band's creation. At a memorial service for Champion, Band director Julian White told members that they will eventually have to face what has happened.
"You are going to have to be courageous enough to accept the responsibilities and obligations that may lay in front of you."
Meanwhile, university faculty, staff and students are mourning the death of a person who many White says was an example of the band's motto: "highest quality of character."
"He wanted to be a drum major. He tried out the first time, and he didn't make it. He waited a couple years, tried out again, and still didn't make it. Well, we looked up in the Spring, and there he was again. And he made it."
The Marching 100, and all other ensembles under the direction of the FAMU Department of music have been suspended. Initial autopsy results were inconclusive and more tests have to be done before a final cause of death can be determined. Under state law, Hazing that results in a death is a third degree felony which carries up to five years in prison.