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FAMU band suspended for 2012-13 school year

TALLAHASSEE — Florida A&M University's world-famous marching band will remain suspended next school year.

The hazing death of drum major Robert Champion last November "continues to present difficult days for the university family," university president James Ammons said in announcing the decision Monday. The extended suspension — which started after Champion's death — comes as several investigations into hazing and band finances continue.

"I agree with the common theme expressed by our constituents: The band must be restructured," Ammons said.

The decision to sideline the band, known as the Marching 100, broadens the challenge of funding FAMU's athletics department, which has relied on the band's high-octane performances to help sell tickets. The athletics department starts the 2012-13 school year with a deficit of about $6.5 million.

Still, it's a move consistent with public statements from Gov. Rick Scott and Frank Brogan, the state university system chancellor.

Last week, Ammons told university trustees that 101 members of the band were not enrolled at the university, including a few people arrested in connection with Champion's death after the Florida Classic game in Orlando last November. The revelation preceded the retirement of 12-year band director Julian White.

No trustees spoke out against Ammons' decision during a conference call Monday.

"I know it's a hard pill to swallow because I think we all love the 100," said trustee Torey Alston.

More reports of hazing have surfaced since the band's indefinite suspension in November, and two music faculty members were fired for their involvement in a hazing ritual two years ago. That incident, made public this spring, led the national Kappa Kappa Psi band fraternity on Monday to shutter its FAMU chapter for five years and expel 28 members.

Ammons will present a plan for the band's return at a June trustees meeting. At the same meeting, he said, he will offer a plan for restructuring the music department and dealing with the university's contractual obligations for its two high-profile fall classics. The football games in Orlando and Atlanta bring in a combined $1.5 million — about 9 percent of the athletics department's budget, he said.

Band members will not lose their scholarships as long as they meet academic requirements, he said, adding this has been the policy since the band was first suspended in November. FAMU will continue to offer music scholarships to new students, he said.

The Marching 100 is internationally known for its larger-than-life halftime performances that emphasize choreography almost as much as musicality. With the band out of commission, FAMU will explore "alternative entertainment" for football games and the classics, though Ammons would not elaborate on what that might entail.

Sasha Muhammad, 18, a FAMU sophomore from Tarpon Springs, said she expected Ammons' decision but worries about financial consequences for students like her who aren't in the band. The university has no choice but to provide entertainment for big events, including FAMU's 125th anniversary celebration that coincides with homecoming weekend, "but it's not going to be the same," she said.

"I'm disappointed," she said, "My dad was looking forward to homecoming. I told him, you might as well stay home."

The university's School of Business and Industry will research how the band's absence will affect ticket sales, Ammons said.

Reactions among alumni were mixed. A few, like Chelsea Hall Padgett, 28, of Valrico, said they would attend football games because the university needs support now more than ever. Padgett road-tripped to the Atlanta Classic last fall despite being seven months pregnant with her daughter Olivia.

Riverview resident Keisha Pickett, 31, is a second-generation Rattler who attended her first football game as a toddler. The band is a huge attraction, she said.

"It's going to be such a big missing piece," she said, "and I think it's going to really be evident and very noticeable."

Ammons said he will revisit the band's standing around this time next year. The band must meet new, though unspecified, guidelines relating to academic standards, years of eligibility, practice time and adult chaperones, he said.

Asked about renewed calls for his resignation, Ammons said he has not considered stepping down and will serve until trustees tell him to leave.

"There are other issues around Florida A&M University other than hazing," he said. "There are many other facets to this institution than the Marching 100."

White, the school's band director, initially deflected blame for the 101 ineligible band members last week. But Ammons put the blame on White on Monday, saying it was up to him to verify enrollment and attendance in the requisite music course he oversaw. The class has two sections and is required of all band members, including those also enrolled at Tallahassee Community College and Florida State University.

Authorities recently arrested 13 band members in connection with Champion's death. Eleven face felony charges.

The extended suspension provides some relief to Champion's parents, who plan to file a lawsuit against the school this summer, their attorney told ESPN's Outside the Lines on Monday.

"The more we get into (the lawsuit), the more of a Pandora's box we realize it is," attorney Christopher Chestnut said. "This is going to be a very long process, but hopefully it will make FAMU a safer institution."

Times staff researcher Caryn Baird contributed to this report.

FAMU band suspended for 2012-13 school year 05/14/12 [Last modified: Monday, May 14, 2012 9:32pm]
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