November 28, 2011
TALLAHASSEE, Fla (Reuters) – The parents of the Florida A&M University drum major who died after suspected hazing said on Monday they will file a lawsuit against the school to stop what they say is a violent initiation rite. ”This is not going to go away like other incidents,” said the family’s attorney, Christopher Chestnut. “The culture of hazing within theFAMU band has got to be eradicated.”
Robert Champion, 26, died November 19 after being rushed to a hospital following a performance by the internationally renowned FAMU Marching “100″ band at the annual Florida Classic football game against Bethune-Cookman University in Orlando. Champion, a music major from Atlanta who served as one of six drum majors for the 375-member Marching “100″ band, vomited and complained that he could not breathe in a band bus in the parking lot of a hotel after the game.
The medical examiner’s office said a cause of death will not be known for about 10 weeks, but local law enforcement officials suspect that Champion died following a hazing incident aboard the bus. ”What’s tragic is that this could happen to another kid,” said Champion’s father, Robert Champion Sr.”You go to school to become a productive citizen and pursue something you love to do. You don’t expect this.”
Pam Champion said her son was a laid-back, gentle young man who was involved in his church, and did community outreach. He tried to help new members adjust to life among the world-famous Marching “100,” known for its high-stepping, high-energy dance routines. “He loved the band,” she said. Their attorney said the family hopes the lawsuit, which has not yet been filed, will shed light on a practice that they contend has been tolerated not just within the marching band or at FAMU, but at bands, fraternities and colleges across the country.
Champion’s death is the most recent hazing-related incident involving the Marching “100″ and the university.
A band member won a $1.8 million verdict in a civil battery suit against five band members for a 2001 hazing incident in which he was beaten so badly his kidneys shut down. The student settled the suit out of court with FAMU for an undisclosed sum.
In 2006, a pair of FAMU fraternity students went to jail for a hazing incident that left the victim so bruised from paddling he required surgery.
A 2005 Florida law, passed after the death of a University of Miami student, bolstered penalties for hazing rituals that lead to great bodily harm or death.
After Champion’s death, FAMU President James Ammons suspended the band’s activities and fired director Julian White, who has led the band since 1998. Ammons created a task force to look into hazing at the historically black college. White wants his job back and has hired Tallahassee lawyer Chuck Hobbs, who said the tenured FAMU professor has been made a scapegoat despite White’s repeated efforts over the past 13 years to address hazing. Those efforts included a decision in November to suspend approximately 30 band members for hazing activities earlier this fall, Hobbs said. ”This is a knee-jerk reaction by the administration.” Hobbs told Reuters on Monday. “It could be at least three months before the medical examiner’s report is released…It is extremely premature to make this decision.”
The Orange County Sheriff’s Office is investigating the death. Last week, Governor Rick Scott also ordered the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to conduct an investigation “to assure that the circumstances leading to Mr. Champion’s death become fully known, and that if there are individuals directly or indirectly responsible for this death, they are appropriately brought to justice and held accountable.”