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FAMU mourns death of drum major, questions surrounding the death persist

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By Lynn Hatter

http://stream.publicbroadcasting.net/production/mp3/wfsu/local-wfsu-994828.mp3

Tallahassee, FL – Law enforcement officials say the death of a Florida A & M University Drum major is hazing related, and a criminal investigation is underway. Lynn Hatter reports the death and the hazing charges have shaken the university and its famed "Marching 100" band.

Florida A & M's Lee Hall auditorium was packed Tuesday night, with current and former band members, faculty, staff and students coming out to remember the life of a person who many say, was a living example of the band's motto, "highest quality of character." Band Director Julian E. White said those words were a reflection of Robert Champion.

"Someone asked me, what was a 26, 27-year-old doing as a drum major in the band? And I didn't answer the email, but I thought about it. Robert came to school, the first year, didn't have much money and had to drop out. He came back again, he had to drop out again, and then it looked like he wasn't going to make it."

White said Champion was a person who had known hardship in life, but despite it all, still continued to pursue his dream, which was to be a Drum Major for the Marching 100. To do it, Champion worked in FAMU's cafeteria, went to class and, according to Dr. White, was never late to a band rehearsal or performance. That kind of determination made an impression on those who knew him like former band member Tony Alexander.

"I've known Robert for about 8, 9 years now. And [he was] one of the very few people that I really can say I've seen him not laughing, you know, not having a good time."

Allegations of hazing started almost immediately following Champions death. The 26-year-old Atlanta native was vomiting and complaining of not being able to breathe in the parking lot of an Orlando hotel where the Marching 100 was staying following a football game Saturday. He later died at a hospital. The Orange County Sheriff's office said it initially suspected, "no foul play." But late Tuesday afternoon Sheriff Jerry Demings announced a criminal probe into Champion's death.

"I will note that under Florida statute 1006.63, any death that results of hazing is a 3rd degree felony. Anyone who participates in such events can be criminally charged."

The university has suspended the Marching 100 and all other music ensembles indefinitely. In addition to the suspension University President James H. Ammons has also announced the school will appoint a separate, independent task force.

"The purpose of this review is not to establish culpability of individual band members in this particular case, but to determine whether there are patterns of behavior by the band or members of it that should be addressed at the institutional level."

The band is widely known for its performances, which include Super Bowls, and Presidential Inaugural Parades. But hazing has also plagued the band for several decades. Attempts to crack down on that activity have largely failed. In 2004, the victim of a 2001 band hazing incident was awarded an 1.8 million civil judgment. In 1998 a lawsuit was filed against the state university's then-governing board, the Board of Regents. And even as far back as 1989, eight band members were charged with battery and jailed after following a report of hazing.