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13 must answer for FAMU drum major’s death

The backdrop is a hazing culture in American universities that Florida Ninth District State Atty. Lawson Lamar framed as “bullying with a tradition.”

(This story reflects the reporting of the FAMUAN, the student voice of Florida A&M University.)

The backdrop is a hazing culture in American universities that Florida Ninth District State Atty. Lawson Lamar framed as “bullying with a tradition.”

That picture took on an additional dimension on Wednesday (May 2) with the filing of charges against 13 people in Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion’s hazing death last November. The death has been ruled a homicide.

 
 Robert Champion (Photo by the FAMUAN)

Following a press conference, several individuals were booked at the Leon County Jail, and one in Georgia, in connection with Champion’s death. Eleven people will face felony hazing charges. Lamar said that those without a criminal record could face up to six years in prison.

No names were immediately released, with Lamar saying his office would hold off until after the arrests had been made. He declared a media blackout on the case during the proceedings to follow, explaining, “We will be doing our talking in court.”

In reading a statement that included the charges, Lamar said Champion was “pummeled to death” resulting in internal bleeding, which led to his death in Orlando on Nov. 19, 2011.

As Lamar was walking away, a reporter asked about the charges. Why only “homicide,” the reporter wondered.

“The testimony obtained to date does not (suggest) murder,” said Lamar, referring to the legal, intent-to-kill stipulation that must accompany murder charges.

FAMU Board of Trustees Chairman Solomon Badger and President James H. Ammons sent their condolences to Champion’s family in a statement and outlined some of the steps the university has taken to eradicate hazing.

The Champion family has filed a lawsuit against the bus company responsible for the transport of the band, claiming the driver, Wendy Millette, stood guard during the events.

Champion’s death has become a symbol of the culture of hazing at FAMU and has sparked a national debate, much to the chagrin of administrators, alumni, faculty and students. In the aftermath of the incident, administrators and the Board of Trustees initiated a series of on-campus seminars with prominent speakers and adopted a new motto of “respect and dignity.”

The trustees’ board has also established an anti-hazing committee composed of experts in law, hazing and marching bands. The first meeting was in March. After two members resigned in early April over whether the group should be subject to Florida’s open government laws, another three members recently followed suit.

“They felt that given the operational constraints and limited time frame to prepare a report, they could not reasonably complete the task asked of them,” said FAMU spokeswoman Sharon Saunders.

Belinda Shannon, the Board of Trustees liaison with the anti-hazing committee, will be working “with the university’s internal crisis committee to identify short term issues and proposed recommendations for the board’s review and discussion at the June meeting,” Saunders added.

David Starnes, director of athletic bands at Western Carolina University, cited “roadblocks” in the committee’s process as a major reason for his resignation in a letter to Shannon.

“I do not feel that FAMU or the Board of Trustees is ready to take this step,” he said.

Since Champion’s death, seven band members have been arrested in connection with hazing incidents, and two music professors, Anthony Simons III and Diron Holloway, were put on leave after a Tallahassee Police department report said they had been present at band fraternity hazing off campus. Last week, they resigned prior to facing administrative action from the university.

The band still remains inactive and new-member intake has been halted indefinitely.

Band Director Julian White was placed on administrative leave in the days following Champion’s death. White has said he alerted the administration of the persistent problem of hazing but his warnings were ignored. After he learned about several incidents, 26 members of the band were barred from playing at the Florida Classic, where Champion was killed.

“Now that arrests have been made and the criminal investigation into the hazing that led to Robert Champion’s death has been concluded, it is our position that President Ammons and/or the Board of Trustees should finally consider our petition to have Dr. White fully reinstated as Director of Bands and Chair of the Music Department at Florida A&M University,” said Chuck Hobbs, White’s attorney, in a statement.

 

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