It is a damn shame when somebody has to DIE for hazing to be treated like the serious crime that it is. 26-year-old FAMU drum major Robert Champion died in Orlando Saturday following the band’s halftime performance at the Florida Classic. Now Orange County Sheriff Jerry L. Demings is saying that hazing is suspected in his death and he is letting it be known that if hazing is found as the cause of death the responsible parties will be charged with a third degree felony:
“Any death that occurs as a result of hazing is a third-degree felony,” Demings said.
Demings, in his remarks Tuesday, said his investigation “indicates that hazing was involved in the events that occurred prior to the 911 call for assistance.
“Anyone who participates in such events can be criminally charged,” he said, adding that results of an autopsy performed Monday were inconclusive. More medical tests will be performed.
In the meantime, FAMU President Dr. James Ammons has suspended all performances for the “Marching 100″ and other band programs at the school. Ammons says the university is organizing an independent task force to “determine if there are patterns of inappropriate behavior within the culture” of the 375-member band.
BUT, it seems likely that Champion’s death could have been prevented, given that a number of parents had voiced concerns over abuse in the band during previous months:
Felicia Fabre, whose son is a sophomore in the band, said she received a text message Saturday night saying a drum major had been killed after a hazing incident.
Her first thought was, “Oh, my God, I told them that this was going to happen,” Fabre said. She shared with the Sentinel a series of emails, beginning in August, that outlined some of the abusive behavior her son had witnessed and been subjected to by “section leaders” in the band.
“These practice[s] MUST STOP and they will not until someone stands up and some changes are made,” Fabre wrote in an email to band director Julian White and Ralph Turner, listed on the website as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. “I feel because of love, calling and duty I must not only speak up for my son, but also for the students who are being belittled and mistreated and feel they do not have a voice.”
She’s not the only parent who voiced concerns:
Berlinda Johnson, whose son is a freshman and in the band, said she was in Orlando for the game and heard late Saturday that Champion had died. She told the Sentinel there were rumors that Champion had been beaten in the moments before he collapsed.
“Hazing has been ongoing throughout the year,” she said. “This started the very first week of band camp.”
In September, Johnson sent an email to band director White, which began, “Without my son’s consent, I am sending you this e-mail….”
“Students are being terrorized and humiliated daily,” she wrote. She gave examples: Her son had been “punched in the back while he was running around track” by a freshman section leader.
“This is now an official complaint,” she wrote. “Please stop him and warn him that this verbal and physical abuse is serious business.”
Johnson said she thinks White has tried hard to stop the hazing behavior, but other leaders in the band continue to participate.
And one parent was very clear about what her son said was going before Champion collapsed, after vomiting and struggling to breathe:
FAMU parent Julie Lopez said her son, a band member, received a call from another student saying Champion was “crossing bus C” when he died.
She asked her son to describe the “rite of passage,” which involves beating a new section member who is walking from the back to the front of a bus. To earn the respect and acceptance of his fellow drum majors, Champion may have endured this pummeling, all three parents who contacted the Sentinel said.
“Everyone was talking about it,” Lopez said. “It was a planned event.”
School officials say that at some 30 students were kicked out of the band earlier this year due to hazing concerns. Apparently that wasn’t enough. This isn’t the first time hazing has led to embarrassment for the the school:
The Tallahassee school has received seven reports of hazing in the past decade, officials said. Two of those cases resulted in the arrests of three people, according to university spokeswoman Sharon Saunders. The other cases were not prosecuted or the victims refused to cooperate, she said.
Saunders said the school has an anti-hazing policy, and band director White said he has dismissed more than two dozen band members recently because of possible hazing incidents.
Former FAMU marching-band member Marcus Parker won a $1.8 million verdict against members of the band in 2004, stemming from an incident in 2001, according to the Florida Times-Union newspaper in Jacksonville.
The newspaper reported that Parker was beaten with paddling boards so badly during a Marching 100 initiation that one of his kidneys shut down temporarily. Five men were held liable for his injuries.
More photos of Champion and the full statement from FAMU president on the next page.