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Ousted FAMU band director says he fought to end hazing

Robert Champion Sr. and Pam Champion talk about their son, Robert Champion Jr., during a news conference Monday in Lithonia, Ga.

Associated Press

Robert Champion Sr. and Pam Champion talk about their son, Robert Champion Jr., during a news conference Monday in Lithonia, Ga.

TALLAHASSEE — Ousted last week as director of Florida A&M University's marching band, Julian White made a case for reinstatement Monday, saying he worked tirelessly during his tenure to prevent the kind of hazing rituals that investigators believe led to a drum major's death after a football game.

"I feel very comfortable that I did everything I could to eradicate hazing," White said in a news conference at his attorney's office.

Robert Champion, 26, of Atlanta was found unresponsive on a bus outside the band's Orlando hotel Nov. 19 after vomiting and complaining he could not breathe. Earlier, the Marching 100 had performed at the annual Florida Classic game against Bethune-Cookman.

Officials say it could take up to three months to determine a cause of death.

FAMU president James Ammons fired White on Wednesday, citing his failure to stop hazing within the band.

"He said, 'Doc, I don't know what other way to put it, this is it for you,' " White said. "He said, 'You can resign, or you can be terminated.' "

White told reporters that he had asked supervisors for help with hazing over the years. He wanted more students suspended or expelled from school.

"Sometimes I feel as though I'm out there by myself," White said, "and by that I mean, you know, if I've given you the names, do something about it. ... If some strong actions had been taken, then Robert Champion may well be alive now."

When Champion was pronounced dead at the hospital, White asked if he could be alone with Champion, one of six drum majors.

"I asked the medics if they would allow me a few minutes, that I could just go in and touch Robert, and see Robert, just as a reminder to me how tragic life can be sometimes," he said.

Then came the hardest part, White said: calling Champion's parents.

White said he will speak at Champion's funeral in Atlanta on Wednesday at the request of his parents, who said in a separate news conference Monday that they intend to sue FAMU.

"We are confident from what we've learned that hazing was a part of his death. We've got to expose this culture and eradicate it," said their attorney, Christopher Chestnut. "There's a pattern and practice of covering up this culture."

White maintains he made ending hazing a priority even before he took over as director. Band members sit through hazing workshops during orientation and often hear speeches from top FAMU officials warning of the legal consequences, he said. Plus, each member must sign a pledge against hazing.

White has suspended 100 students over the years for hazing, he said, and word is routinely sent to the president and campus police chief, among other administrators, he said.

Two weeks before the Florida Classic, he suspended 26 students for hazing activities after the school's homecoming game. He fielded angry calls from parents who wanted their children on the field, but he thought it was worth it. He thought hazing would be over.

"I was taking something away from those students that they honestly desire so much," he said of the Classic.

Ammons suspended the band last week for the first time in its history, as well as all other performance ensembles in the music department. White said he supports that decision.

His firing prompted about 100 students to protest Monday morning on campus. Students held posters that read "Save Music" and chanted, "We want Doc!"

White joined the university in 1972 and took over the band in 1998. Nine years earlier, as associate director of bands, he wrote to then-director William Foster about how the hazing death of a Morehouse College fraternity pledge could happen at FAMU if drastic measures were not taken to curb similar practices there. He warned that prolonged hazing could "destroy the band."

"It would be very difficult for the University and the band should someone become killed or hurt because of hazing," he wrote in a memo included in a packet to Ammons.

White's attorney, Charles "Chuck" Hobbs II, called White's dismissal "completely ludicrous" given White's efforts over two decades to discourage hazing.

A reporter asked White on Monday if he felt Ammons made him a scapegoat for Champion's death. He said yes. He did not say Ammons should be removed from his post, though at least one group — the Florida Civil Rights Association — has called for Ammons' removal.

A FAMU alumnus, Ammons inherited a university at risk of losing its accreditation when he took the top job in 2007. State audits chronicled years of mismanagement, including $2.7 million worth of missing supplies like computer equipment.

The chairman of the university's Board of Trustees has expressed confidence in Ammons. "He has responded appropriately to this tragic situation," Solomon Badger said in a statement.

Information from the Associated Press was included in this report.

Ousted FAMU band director says he fought to end hazing 11/28/11 [Last modified: Monday, November 28, 2011 11:04pm]
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