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FAMU band director fired, 4 students suspended in wake of member's death

Robert Champion, 26, seen here with an aspiring drum major at FAMU’s last home game of the season Nov. 5, died Saturday after the Florida Classic in Orlando. On the bus that night, Champion vomited and said he was having trouble breathing.

Keenan Doanes | The Famuan

Robert Champion, 26, seen here with an aspiring drum major at FAMU’s last home game of the season Nov. 5, died Saturday after the Florida Classic in Orlando. On the bus that night, Champion vomited and said he was having trouble breathing.

TALLAHASSEE — Fallout from the death of a Florida A&M University drum major intensified Wednesday with the firing of the school's band director, the suspensions of four students and Gov. Rick Scott ordering the state's law enforcement agency to assist with the investigation.

Robert Champion, a 26-year-old music student from Atlanta, was found unresponsive Saturday night on a bus after vomiting and complaining he could not breathe. The bus was parked in front of an Orlando hotel after the Marching 100 performed at the annual Florida Classic football game against rival Bethune-Cookman.

Champion was hazed before the 911 call, Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said Tuesday, but officials acknowledged the cause of Champion's death could take three months to determine.

Still, FAMU president James Ammons fired Julian White, the band's director of 13 years, because he said he failed to protect students from hazing despite repeated complaints. His dismissal is effective Dec. 22. Ammons also announced the formation of an eight-member task force charged with analyzing the band's hazing culture and recommending new policies to eradicate it.

"I think we've shed a lot of light on this pattern of behavior that has plagued this campus and campuses across the country for so long," Ammons said in a news conference.

White could not be reached.

Ammons refused to give details about the suspensions, citing student privacy laws. He said they were suspended because of their "known association with the hazing that took place over the weekend."

On Tuesday, he indefinitely suspended the 375-member marching band and other performance ensembles supervised by the music department.

In a letter to FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey, Gov. Scott said he wanted Champion's death "to become fully known" and for anyone directly or indirectly responsible for his death to be brought to justice.

"The reality," Scott wrote, "is that the death investigation significantly impacts the University, the Tallahassee community and the State of Florida as a whole."

• • •

Bernard Kinsey, a major FAMU fundraiser who played in the band in the 1960s and a former president of the school's National Alumni Association, watched with pride Saturday as the Marching 100 performed what would become his favorite performance in a decade: a high-stepping tribute to military veterans, at one point forming the shape of an airplane coming home for a landing and unfurling a mammoth red, white and blue flag across the field.

Kinsey would later admire a solo by the trombone section. Band director White, an old friend, told him the section was 19 members fewer than normal because he suspended them out of suspicion of hazing.

"He said, 'Bernard, we cracked down,' " Kinsey said.

Hours later, Champion was dead.

On campus Wednesday, there weren't many students left before Thanksgiving. Some said they were disappointed by their band, revered as the university's gem.

"At first I didn't really want to believe," said Shanqueria Wiggins, an 18-year-old freshman. "But a lot of people on Twitter are saying, 'It's hazing, it's hazing.' "

"We don't look at the band the same right now," said Brittney Williams, a freshman biology major from Tampa.

• • •

To be a member of the Marching 100 is to reign supreme.

Members walk in groups across campus lugging their horns and woodwinds, students said.

They work afternoons, nights and sometimes Sundays to perfect crisp finishes on complicated formations. They get invited to perform on BET and at Super Bowls, and they marched during President Barack Obama's inauguration.

"You get the fame," said Josh Thomas, a 21-year-old FAMU sophomore who played in the band for a year. "You're kind of treated like celebrities."

Being successful in band left time for little else. Thomas decided to leave because he wanted to try concert choir.

His group sang Total Praise during Champion's memorial service on campus Tuesday. Champion was one of six drum majors — a big-time leader.

"He didn't mess with anybody," Thomas said. "If he had to get on you it was because it was his duty as a natural-born leader."

• • •

Thirty band members have been suspended this semester because of hazing allegations, and the university has three active hazing investigations.

Death involving hazing is a third-degree felony in Florida, but hazing has permeated the band and university.

A milestone case in 2006 involved 26 pledges of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity Inc. and, eventually, the imprisonment of two fraternity members. As part of their initiation, pledges blindfolded themselves with sanitary pads and stockings as members punched and whipped them with wooden canes over four nights.

"Once you get so far into it, they'll badmouth you, talk about you, spread rumors about you throughout the campus," pledge Marcus Jones told the Times a year later. "It's a point of no return."

Administrators met with the band and staff twice last week to warn of the legal consequences of hazing, Ammons said.

Ultimately, Thomas said, it's up to students to break the culture.

"It's all about choices," Thomas said. "You have a choice to do certain things, and then you have a choice not to."

Information from the Associated Press was used in this report.

. fast facts

Florida A&M University

Founded: As the State Normal College for Colored Students in 1887.

Enrollment: Nearly 12,000.

Location: Main campus in Tallahassee; satellite campuses in Tampa, Orlando, Miami and Jacksonville.

Demographics: 90 percent black; 5 percent white; 2.3 percent Hispanic; 1.2 percent Asian; 1.5 percent other.

FAMU band director fired, 4 students suspended in wake of member's death 11/23/11 [Last modified: Wednesday, November 23, 2011 10:14pm]
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