By Howard Goodman
Florida Center for Investigative Reporting
Florida A&M University’s Marching 100 has long been a joyous model of high-stepping, boisterous precision. But since the hazing death of a drum major, it has been an organization in crisis, its reputation in tatters.
Yesterday, the band’s 71-year-old director, Julian White, who had wielded the baton for 14 years, announced his resignation. And the chairman of FAMU’s board, Solomon Badger, said he hopes that the university’s president, James Ammons, keeps the band suspended indefinitely.
It all increases the likelihood that the famed band won’t take the field next year to dazzle with half-time shows, as it has so many times in a 120-year history that includes appearances at Super Bowls and inaugural parades.
Ammons is slated to discuss the band’s fate at a special meeting Monday.
“I would like to hear him say the band is suspended indefinitely until sufficient time has lapsed and enough has been done to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” Badger said. “The time to fix the band would not be while the band is on the field.”
Last week, 11 members of the band were charged with felony hazing in the November 2011 death of Robert Champion, and two others were charged with misdemeanors. Champion, 26, died following a ritual on a bus in which he was allegedly hit and struck by fellow band members.
This week, officials disclosed that about 100 members of the band — which actually numbers about 450 members — were not actually FAMU students at the time Champion died.
It all suggests an organization that had turned a blind eye on a dangerous and needless student rite, that was exercising too little supervision of the young people wearing its uniforms, and — like some athletic departments that become supreme in their college towns — possibly operated too much like a separate and untouchable entity at the historically black university.
The band goes by the motto: “A role model of excellence.” But according to an Associated Press investigation earlier this year that involved hundreds of pages of records, years of repeated warnings about brutal hazing passed without any serious response from Florida A&M University’s leadership until last November’s beating death.
The AP said:
Police files show that since 2007 nearly two dozen incidents involving the band, fraternities and other student groups have been investigated. But it wasn’t until Champion’s death that the band director was initially fired, the band was suspended, student clubs were halted from recruiting new members and an anti-hazing task force was assembled.
[Numerous] parents over the last several years wrote or called university administrators, band officials or police begging someone at FAMU to keep their son or daughter safe.
“After 1 month at FAMU he is broken, indecisive, sad, confused and he wants to come home,” parent Cheryl Walker emailed Ammons. ” … My son will not quit school, you will not break him, I will see to that but FAMU has lost a hell of a young man and after this semester he will not be back. I pray that GOD will give the administration wisdom and courage to stand up against the stupid idiotic practices that go on (at) this FAMU campus.”
Emails show that the hazing was clearly known as a problem to various school officials.
William Hudson, a FAMU administrator, wrote to then-vice president for student affairs Roland Gaines in 2009 and asked “Do you think we can have the police talk to the band and put the fear of GOD in them? Even ride by the field during practice?”
But little was done to change the culture. Police investigations went nowhere because students, even those victimized by hazing, refused to cooperate. “Police investigations into hazing were so commonplace that FAMU police even had a ‘band hazing questionnaire’ that it submitted to students. And it appears that hazing wasn’t just limited to current band members. Julian White — band director at the time of Champion’s death — wrote an email to band alumni asking them to refrain from hazing current students,” the AP’s Gary Fineout wrote in his March 24 report.
The AP found other victims of the band’s violent rituals:
In 1998, Ivery Luckey, a clarinet player from Ocala was hospitalized with kidney damage after being paddled in the initiation to join a group known as “The Clones.”
Three years later, band member Marcus Parker was hospitalized with kidney damage after being paddled.
A few weeks before Champion’s death, band member Bria Hunter was hospitalized with a broken leg and blood clots in what authorities say was another act of hazing. Three band members have been charged.
In September, more aspiring “Clones” members were punched and paddled, leading to charges in January against four band members.
No single blow killed Champion, authorities said. Rather, his death was caused by multiple blows from many individuals — hence, the charges against 13 people for hazing, not the more serious charges of manslaughter or second-degree murder.
Champion’s parents, meantime, say the band should be disbanded until the “hazing culture” is rooted out.
USA Today‘s Larry Copeland reports:
“FAMU cannot go on with business as usual,” said Champion’s mother, Pam Champion. “They need to clean house. If you don’t clean the filth out, it just stays there.”
She and Champion’s father, Robert Champion Sr., and their attorney, Christopher Chestnut, said FAMU alumni helped students who were on the bus with their son to shape their stories. “We have learned that there was a calculated conspiracy to cover up Robert Champion’s murder,” Chestnut said. “We have learned that alumni were communicating with students on that bus, telling them what to say.”
Chestnut said he got that information from some of the students involved, who told his investigators that they were instructed by FAMU alumni what to say and not to say and how to say it “in order to ensure that no one would be arrested and charged for murder. That is simply inexcusable.”
FAMU did not respond to a request for comment on the Champions’ allegation. FAMU president James Ammons and board chairman Solomon Badger said in a joint statement that the school was working “vigorously” to eradicate hazing.