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Florida A and M suspends band after fatal hazing incident

Kenneth J. Cooper | 9/26/2012, 12:05 p.m.

Florida A and M University opened its football season earlier this month against Tennessee State University in Nashville without its fabled marching band present.

Florida A and M, a historically black school in Tallahassee, suspended its Marching 100 band for at least a year after Robert Champion died from hazing injuries that other band members inflicted last November.

The fatal incident is the only known marching band death from hazing in the country, according to Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University in New Orleans and a national expert on hazing.

The fallout has taken a heavy toll on the state university, which has a reputation for strong academics. Prosecutors have charged 13 students with violating Florida’s tough anti-hazing law, and Champion’s parents have sued the university and bus company.

Kimbrough said the death of Champion, a drum major who was 26, was "the most covered hazing death in the history of American higher education."

James Ammons, Florida AandM’s president since 2007, resigned in July. Kimbrough noted that critics faulted Ammons for not being more visibly engaged and taking stronger action on the fatal hazing, part of a pattern of incidents at the university dating back at least 15 years.

Kimbrough, for instance, has argued that Ammons’ suspension of the Marching 100, which has performed around the world, including in President Obama’s inaugural parade, should last at least five years.

Terry W. Hartle, senior vice president of government and public affairs at the American Council on Education in Washington, said that the band "probably required closer monitoring and oversight than it was getting" because of its history of hazing.

"If it’s something that has happened before, you have to be hyperaware of it," Hartle added.

Kimbrough is less critical of Ammons, who he has known for several years and called "a fine university president" despite the circumstances surrounding his resignation.

"I blame the folks around him for not providing him with enough information. He has a million things on his plate," Kimbrough said. "He’s not going to know all of the day-to-day goings-on with the band. He knew there had been problems in the past. That’s public record. But he has folks who are supposed to take care of that."

In addition to the departure of Ammons, band director and music department chairman Julian White retired — after the university moved to fire him. The chief of campus police, Calvin Ross, also retired, as he had previously planned.

One irony is that Florida AandM had been pursuing the best practices to prevent hazing.

Those steps, however, did not halt serious incidents:

  • In 1998, clarinetist Ivery D. Luckey was paddled more than 300 times in an initiation ritual, suffering kidney damage. Florida AandM suspended 20 students in the Marching 100 from the university. Luckey received an undisclosed financial settlement.
  • Three years later, trumpeter Marcus Walker suffered kidney failure from a severe paddling. He won an undisclosed settlement too and a $1.8 million judgment against the five band members who struck him.
  • Then in 2006, members of Kappa Alpha Psi beat pledge Marcus Jones with canes so badly he required stitches. Two Kappas were the first students convicted under Florida’s anti-hazing law, the nation’s toughest, and spent nearly two years in prison. The university banished the fraternity from campus for seven years, a step Kimbrough called standard practice.

After a one-year sabbatical, Ammons will return to the faculty — a move Kimbrough described as typical of former college presidents who are not ready to retire. Ammons is about 60.

Florida AandM is going beyond standard practices with its new plans to hire a campus anti-hazing coordinator and a band compliance officer. School administrators are also seeking two different individuals to chair the music department and direct the band, adding another layer of oversight of the Marching 100.

"I think they have had a history of doing a lot of the best practices, but their situation is different," Kimbrough said. "It’s a very different campus climate, and so those in leadership positions have to say we have got to take it to another level, just based on our clientele, our population, and what’s happened here."

Although better known in fraternities and college athletic teams, hazing has been part of bands’ culture for nearly a century, according to Kimbrough.

"It happens in bands across the country, high school and college," says James T. Minor, director of higher education programs at the Southern Education Foundation in Atlanta.

But Kimbrough said band hazing has increased at black colleges since the 1990s. His plausible but unproven theory is the practice relocated after historically black fraternities and sororities banned pledging in 1990.

"By the end of that decade you starting to see some regular reports of either band or music fraternity hazing cases," Kimbrough said. "It just moved."

Both Hartle and Minor said, no matter how much an institution prepares, a risk of a serious hazing incident or other campus crisis remains — just because there are so many colleges, students and faculty members.

"The fact is that if you are running a college or university, the likelihood that something will go seriously wrong is fairly high," Hartle said. "You simply — no matter how much risk management you practice — cannot eliminate the possibility that something will go terribly wrong."