Monday, June 25, 2018

Hazing report slams FAMU

TALLAHASSEE — A blistering state report released Friday contends that Florida A&M University officials failed to follow state laws and regulations on hazing in the years leading up to the death of a FAMU drum major.

A 32-page report from the Florida Board of Governors inspector general's office concludes that the school lacked internal controls to prevent or detect hazing, citing a lack of communication among top university officials, the police department and the office responsible for disciplining students.

But investigators said there was insufficient evidence to conclude whether university officials ignored allegations of hazing given to them by the former director of the Marching 100 band shortly before the November 2011 death of Robert Champion.

Larry Robinson, FAMU's interim president, said the university would officially review the report for any inaccuracies, but noted there were no new incidents detailed in the report. Still, he said the university would use the report to make sure that it had taken appropriate steps to prevent future hazing incidents.

"What I want to focus on is what we are doing at the university to minimize the chances of things happening again," Robinson said.

The report comes at a critical time for FAMU. Earlier this month, a regional accrediting organization placed the school on probation for 12 months. The university has one year to prove it is turning itself around or its accreditation could be revoked.

FAMU officials say they have already made sweeping changes in the aftermath of Champion's death, which also resulted in the retirement of the band director and the resignation of the university president.

The Marching 100 band remains suspended, but when it is reinstated band members will have to meet strict new eligibility requirements, including a minimum grade point average.

Robinson said that he still does not know when the Marching 100 will return. FAMU still has not picked a new band director, or hired someone for two other positions intended to help the university clamp down on hazing at the school.

The report caps a tumultuous year for the university, which has also endured a criminal investigation into the finances of the Marching 100 as well as the revelation that the university trustees were given false audit summaries by university auditors.

State University System Chancellor Frank Brogan stated in a memo sent out Friday that the problems detailed in recent months at the university "did not happen simply by accident, nor did they result from benign neglect."

"The problems that have permeated FAMU for more than a year were a direct result of action or inaction by FAMU personnel, who either had not developed adequate policies or simply did not enforce policies that were in place," Brogan wrote.

Brogan recommended that the Florida Board of Governors — which oversees the state university system — work closely with FAMU officials in the months to come and report regularly on the actions being taken.

It was the board's own inspector general who issued Friday's report, which was ordered shortly after Champion was beaten by fellow members of FAMU's famed band during a hazing ritual aboard a charter bus. More than a dozen students were charged for their role in Champion's death.

But the inspector general looked at how FAMU officials handled hazing complaints during the tenure of former FAMU President James Ammons. The report echoes an Associated Press story from March detailing how hundreds of pages of public records showed that repeated warnings about brutal hazing passed without any serious response from the school's leadership until Champion's death.

The Board of Governors' inspector general conducted more than 35 interviews and reviewed more than 7,000 pages of documents covering 2007 through 2011.

The final report found that hazing complaints were not routinely forwarded to the school's judicial affairs office for review or disciplinary action, band member eligibility was seldom verified, there was no central database to track hazing complaints, and there was no communication between police and the school's judicial affairs office. For example, nine hazing cases investigated by FAMU police were never referred back to the judicial affairs office to see whether student conduct rules were violated.

The report points out that rules adopted back in 1998 intended to prevent hazing in the band were ignored.

Investigators also tried to figure out what happened at a Nov. 16, 2011, meeting that was held just days before Champion's death.

Top FAMU officials at the meeting discussed hazing in the band and the possibility of hazing at the upcoming Florida Classic game being held in Orlando.

The meeting was being held shortly after band director Julian White suspended nearly 30 students for the game due to hazing allegations.

Some of those at the meeting — including former FAMU police Chief Calvin Ross — told investigators they had recommended suspending the entire band and keeping them from performing. But then-FAMU Provost Cynthia Hughes-Harris disputed that account and said that option was not discussed.

Champion's family has filed a lawsuit contending that the school failed to take action to stop hazing. That lawsuit cites the Nov. 2011 meeting as an example of inaction by top FAMU officials.

In September FAMU asked a judge to throw out the Champion family lawsuit, saying it should be dismissed on several grounds, including that Champion should have refused to participate in hazing events. The university then offered $300,000 to settle the lawsuit but the offer was rejected by the family.

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