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A Times Editorial

Stepping in where FAMU has failed

Nearly a month after the alleged hazing death of band drum major Robert Champion, Florida A&M University remains in turmoil. Just last week — separate from an investigation into Champion's death by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement — Tallahassee police arrested three band members in another alleged hazing incident that left a female freshman with a broken leg. FDLE alerted school officials that it also turned up evidence of potential fraud or misconduct by university employees. And today, Gov. Rick Scott wants the FAMU Board of Trustees to suspend university president James Ammons. The trustees, who have failed to respond swiftly or effectively to this crisis, should follow the governor's request.

After decades of indifference or ineffectiveness by the FAMU administration and community, it is time to address band hazing and the university's broader issues directly and to demand accountability. Scott wisely tapped FDLE to investigate after Champion's death, which was ruled a homicide on Friday. That improves the odds that the underground culture infecting the band, an open secret on campus, can be exposed and the perpetrators brought to justice. And in last week's arrests, law enforcement delivered a strong message: Hazing will not be tolerated, and it can lead to prison. Membership in the nation's most celebrated college band should not involve bodily harm or possible death.

For generations of African-Americans, FAMU has been a beacon of opportunity. Founded in 1890, it is now the nation's largest historically black university, with the high-stepping, high-energy Marching 100 its signature ambassador. But given the sensitivities of race and history, the state's white power structure has too often been unwilling to demand the same accountability at FAMU that is demanded of other public universities. And when voices have occasionally spoken up, FAMU's supporters have too often reacted defensively.

But Tuesday's arrest of three band members suggests that the code of silence that has allowed hazing to flourish in the band's ranks may finally be cracking. Apparently, fellow band members backed up 18-year-old Atlanta freshman Bria Shante Hunter's accounts of being beaten on the leg with fists and a metal ruler during a ritual required to join the band's "Red Dawg Order" clique of students from Georgia.

And it's notable that both FAMU students and alumni have rallied to support their school, while also condemning the culture of hazing. It takes an entire community to change expectations of an institution as influential as the Marching 100. But it also takes leadership.

That apparently has been lacking. FAMU has been on official notice since at least 1998 — when a hazing incident sent a clarinet player who was paddled 300 times to the hospital — that initiation rituals into some of the band's cliques went far beyond the benign. Another player suffered renal failure after a 2001 incident. And Marching 100 director Julian White, placed on administrative leave following Champion's death, has produced a series of documents suggesting that no one above him heeded years of warnings that the problem was endemic. Just weeks before Champion's death, the band director had suspended 26 members for hazing.

Change rarely comes easily to large institutions. Too often, it takes a tragic mistake or an incident like the death of Champion to serve as a catalyst. FAMU leaders must accept their challenge and end hazing in the Marching 100. They should follow Scott's direction and suspend Ammons, and they should cooperate with the FDLE investigation.

Stepping in where FAMU has failed 12/18/11 [Last modified: Sunday, December 18, 2011 3:30am]
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