Florida A&M University's band director said Tuesday there is no way he can be held responsible for the recent hazing death of one of his drum majors, particularly if it's true Robert Champion was targeted because he was gay.
That possibility was raised by the CBS This Morning news show when a reporter asked Champion's family's lawyer whether the 26-year-old student's sexual orientation was motivation for the beatings that killed him. Chris Chestnut responded: "It may or may not have been."
The lawyer for band director Julian White seized on that, later following up with a statement: "The efforts Dr. White expended to root out and report hazing could not have predicted or prevented such deliberate barbarity."
The exchange was the most recent fingerpointing in the far-reaching hazing scandal that has rocked FAMU's famed Marching 100 band the past few months. Champion, one of the band's senior members, died Nov. 19 in what authorities called a hazing-related homicide.
Fallout at school
His death first prompted FAMU president James Ammons to fire White, then reinstate him and place him on administrative leave after White asserted he fought hard to end the band's long-standing hazing tradition. It led to the suspension of four FAMU students who were later reinstated pending an investigation, and it has prompted state university system leaders to review their hazing policies. Even Gov. Rick Scott weighed in, at one point recommending that Ammons step down, then backing down and saying he would defer to the university's board of trustees.
Champion's parents have been conducting an investigation of their own, their lawyer told the morning news show. Chestnut said at least 10 other students they've talked to said they've been hazed, too.
Champion might have been beaten harder than the others, Chestnut said, for a number of reasons. That could possibly include his sexual orientation, but also his vocal criticism of the hazing practices that plagued the band for decades.
Still, the motivation doesn't really matter, he said.
"Today you're blaming a student for being gay, rather than saying, 'Hey, we messed up, and we're going to fix it,' " Chestnut said in response to White's statement.
Besides, Chestnut asked, what about all the other students who claimed they'd been hazed who weren't gay?
White couldn't have prevented those either, said his lawyer, Chuck Hobbs. He tried — telling the university administration about the problem, making students sign antihazing contracts, bringing law enforcement officers to the school to talk to them about the implications — but he said it didn't work.
"I don't know what else he could have done," Hobbs said.
White wasn't the only target of Champion's parents Tuesday.
Their lawyer also announced a plan to sue the company that owns the bus where police say the hazing took place. Negligence led to Champion's death, Chestnut said, because the students were left unsupervised in the bus in a hotel parking lot.
The president of that company, Fabulous Coach Line, disputes that, saying that it's not up to the bus drivers to monitor students' behavior.
The company did its job by providing safe transportation, said Raymon Land. The students weren't given special access to the bus after it parked, he added. It often takes several hours for the band members to unload all their gear, uniforms and instruments.
As sorry as he is for Champion's family, he said: "We're not police."
It won't stop there. Chestnut said the family also intends to sue the university at some point, calling the school's handling of the situation a "comedy of errors."
"But first we want to know what happened. How did this happen, and why has this happened so frequently for so long," Chestnut said, "and then we can deal with the consequences."
Kim Wilmath can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3337.