Future is murky for Florida A&M's band

  • Article by: GARY FINEOUT ASSOCIATED PRESS
  • Updated: May 3, 2012 - 7:53 PM

A day after 13 people were charged in a deadly hazing incident, the victim's parents call for the band to be dismantled to "clean house."

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Robert Champion Sr., the father of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion — shown at top — who was killed in a hazing incident, left a news conference on Thursday in Atlanta. Champion’s family, including his mother, Pam, at top, urged the university to disband the marching band. University officials, meanwhile, have placed the band on “indefinite suspension” as they decide its future.

Photo: David Goldman, Associated Press

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TALLAHASSEE, FLA. - Now that 13 people have been charged in the hazing death of a Florida A&M University drum major, the future is murky for a famed marching band that has performed at the Grammys, presidential inaugurations and Super Bowls.

The band was suspended in November after Robert Champion, 26, died on a bus chartered for members of Florida A&M's marching band. A medical examiner determined his death was as a result of a brutal beating he received during a hazing.

A day after the charges, Champion's parents and their lawyer branded the charges as too slight and that the university had done too little to combat a culture of hazing. Champion's mother, Pam, called for the band to be disbanded so the university can "clean house." She said, "You can't move forward as business as usual."

'We've got to stop it all'

Eleven people -- all band members -- have been charged with felony hazing resulting in death, said Gretl Plessinger, a spokeswoman with the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Eight had been arrested by Thursday. Two others face misdemeanor charges.

"Initially, our theory was, 'Listen, don't stop the music, just stop the hazing,'" attorney Christopher Chestnut said. But now, he said, "We've got to stop it all. ... This is simply inexcusable. We have got to eradicate this culture."

Champion's death has rattled the world of historically black colleges, where marching bands are an important symbol of pride. And much like the band, questions remain about the future of the school. There is still an ongoing criminal investigation into the finances of the band, as well as a probe by the state university system into whether top officials ignored past warnings about hazing.

The Champion family has already said it plans to sue the university. FAMU set up a task force to look at hazing, but the panel has not met amid a debate over open meetings laws.

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said his investigation, which included 48 interviews, was extensive. Chestnut, however, said that in the course of his investigation -- part of a wrongful death civil suit -- his office collected numerous statements from students who said they were "coached" by alumni about what to say to investigators. He said there was also evidence that people on the bus were "caucusing on how to frame a story, such that basically those who were involved could get away with it."

FAMU President James Ammons, who did not respond to requests for comment, has not said what he plans to do about the band.

It's too soon, governor says

Gov. Rick Scott said he doesn't believe the school is yet in a position to make sure the same thing doesn't happen again. "The band's got a great history, but we can't afford to lose another individual," he said.

Hundreds of pages of records reviewed by the Associated Press showed years of repeated warnings about brutal hazing passed without any serious response from the school's leadership until Champion's death. Police files show that since 2007, nearly two dozen incidents involving the band, fraternities and other student groups had been investigated.

Band director Julian White has since been fired, with Ammons saying he had not done enough to prevent hazing. But his dismissal was put on hold after White's attorneys produced letters that showed he routinely suspended band members and he forwarded the letters to top officials.

The Los Angeles Times contributed to this report.

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  • Robert Champion, a drum major in Florida A&M University's Marching 100 band, performs during a football game in Orlando, Fla.

  • Pam Champion, the mother of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion.

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