Florida A&M University leaders were in denial for decades about the corrosive culture that led five months ago to the hazing death of student drum major Robert Champion. But charges filed Wednesday against 13 people are a key step in correcting that culture and ensuring a brighter future at Florida's only public, historically black university. After years of acquiescence — the majority of FAMU students who engaged in hazing escaped penalty — the state of Florida is now sending the right message to students: You will be held to account for your actions; there will be consequences. That is progress.
Champion's mother was reportedly disappointed when she learned the 13 individuals charged in her son's death will not face tougher charges. That's understandable. For the 11 suspects charged with the most serious crime — hazing resulting in a death, a felony — the maximum sentence is six years. Two others face only misdemeanor charges. But Lawson Lamar, the state attorney in Orange and Osceola counties, said he did not have the evidence to levy harsher charges, including murder. "We can prove participation in hazing and a death," Lamar said. "We do not have a blow or a shot or a knife thrust that killed Mr. Champion."
That's the insidious thing about hazing. Group dynamics lead individual participants to rationalize their own participation, lack of intervention or silence in the face of the bullying force. The desire to fit in, on the part of both hazers and victims, just feeds the problem until someone righteously intervenes. And when an institution has a history of ignoring alarms — including from the band's director — or quietly dealing with the ones it can't ignore, it is a tacit acceptance of the hazing behavior.
That's exactly what happened with FAMU's world-renowned Marching 100 band. Despite repeated evidence of serious hazing leading to hospitalizations of members, university leaders never took dramatic action until the death of Champion, 26. The drum major, who played clarinet, apparently died from injuries suffered after a game in Orlando when he was directed to walk up and down the aisle of the band bus while he was beaten and paddled by bandmates.
It took this young man's death and his family's sacrifice to finally wake up the FAMU community and all of Florida to the dangers of a culture that tolerated such mental and physical torment. In the five months since, students and alumni have rallied in support of change. The university has shut down the band for now and put its director on paid suspension; allowed two band staff members to quit after information surfaced they had witnessed hazing; suspended enrollment in other campus organizations until fall; and is working with national experts on building an antihazing culture.
Wednesday's charges are a crucial step in reinforcing that progress. They are a reminder that even in the insular environment of a university, individuals must be accountable to the law. Hazing will not be tolerated in Florida. There are consequences.