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Bill Maxwell

Brutality and impunity at FAMU

Spike Lee's 1988 film School Daze is filled with violent hazing scenes involving the Gammites, pledges for the Gamma Phi Gamma Fraternity at Mission College. The Gammites struggle to please their Big Brothers.

One scene is notably brutal: The Big Brothers line both sides of the dark hallway. At the farthest end stand the Gammites. One by one, the Gammites run through the line. They cover their heads and eyes as the Big Brothers beat them unmercifully. They are going through the "Gamma Mill."

Top administrators, including the president, go about their regular business, paying little if any attention to the ritualized brutality on their campus.

Although Mission College is a fictional school in a fictional Southern city and Gamma Phi Gamma is an imaginary frat, School Daze depicts real hazing, a practice that includes paddling, punching, slapping, sleep deprivation, branding and the forced drinking of excessive booze.

Mission College could be Florida A&M University. Such scenes have occurred at the historically black school in Tallahassee thousands of times during the history of its famous band, the Marching 100. The band now is in the news because of the alleged hazing death of Robert Champion, a 26-year-old clarinet player and drum major.

Champion, a Decatur, Ga., native, died Nov. 19, a few hours after performing on the field during the Florida Classic football game in Orlando, where FAMU lost to in-state rival Bethune-Cookman University. He was found unresponsive on a bus outside the band's hotel. He died at a hospital.

Julian White, the 71-year-old band director — fired by FAMU president James H. Ammons for "misconduct and/or incompetence" — spoke with band members shortly after Champion died. He said it appeared the drum major had been hazed on the bus, repeatedly struck by a group of band members. He vomited and lost consciousness after the beating.

White described the attackers as "a gang." Investigations reveal that the band has several gangs, or inter-band frats, with handles such as "The Clones," the "Red Dawgs Organization" and the "White Whales." Each gang enforces its own cred, a practice FAMU alumni and supporters long ago accepted as part of the price of belonging to the nation's most famous marching band and one of the university's best recruiting tools. It has performed at several Super Bowls, the Grammys, at presidential inaugurations and represented the United States at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.

If, as evidence indicates, Champion died from hazing, the Board of Governors, which controls the university system, should punish those responsible to the maximum extent. This includes Ammons.

When he became the university's 10th president in 2007, replacing interim Castell Bryant, Ammons was greeted with signs reading "Welcome Home" and "A True Rattler." A Florida native, Ammons earned his bachelor's degree and master's degree from FAMU, taught there during the 1980s and served as a top administrator before going to North Carolina Central University.

His homecoming was to be a new beginning at the nation's largest historically black university. For years, it had been plagued by financial mismanagement and academic problems that threatened its accreditation.

Ammons made several positive changes, but the destructive culture of cronyism, nepotism, secrecy and blind loyalty remain. It is a culture, which Ammons knows well, that allows hazing to thrive in the Marching 100.

As its legend grew over the years, the band became FAMU's brand, and administrators either turned a blind eye to its many misdeeds or gave light punishment such as suspensions from the band rather than expulsions from the university.

Over the years, White, a tenured professor who was associated with the band for 38 years and was its director since 1998, repeatedly told his supervisors about hazing incidents as 150 pages of documents — released after Ammons fired him — show.

He held hazing workshops, spoke one-on-one with band members, sought out places where hazing was suspected and suspended many players over the years. In fact, he suspended 26 players for hazing a week before this year's Florida Classic. And to no avail, in a letter to then-band director William Foster during the 1980s, White warned that the death of a member as a result of hazing could spell the end of the Marching 100.

Ironically, the end came for White's career. Ammons is using him as a scapegoat to divert attention from his failure of leadership related to hazing, a third-degree felony in Florida. Ammons also dismissed four students for their alleged involvement in the drum major's death.

As he should, White is suing to get his job back, arguing that as a tenured professor he has the right to due process.

The university's board of trustees, Chancellor Frank Brogan, Gov. Rick Scott and other officials should investigate Ammons' leadership and fire him if he is shown to have acted irresponsibly by condoning cover-ups and ignoring years of evidence and warnings that hazing was routine.

Ammons knows, for example, that former band members Ivery Luckey and Marcus Parker were hazed and that they successfully sued. Luckey was awarded $50,000 in 2004. He was paddled more than 300 times and was hospitalized. Parker won $1.8 million in 2001 for beatings that damaged his kidney.

As president and a FAMU graduate, Ammons has all of this history and more. He should not be allowed to hide behind scapegoats and his "zero tolerance" rhetoric. And if Champion's death proves to be the result of hazing, the Marching 100 should be given the death penalty.

Brutality and impunity at FAMU 12/02/11 [Last modified: Friday, December 2, 2011 6:23pm]
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