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Hazing looked at in FAMU band member's death

By Gary Fineout
Associated Press / November 22, 2011
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla.—Florida A&M University's famed Marching 100 band, which has a history of hazing, has been shut down until investigators find out more about how one of its members died after a football game.

University President James Ammons said on Tuesday he suspended all performances and other activities out of respect for the family of 26-year-old Robert Champion of Atlanta. The drum major was found unresponsive on a bus parked in front of an Orlando hotel Saturday night after the school's loss to annual rival Bethune-Cookman. Champion was vomiting and had complained he couldn't breathe before he collapsed.

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said a preliminary autopsy was inconclusive and that more tests would be needed to know what caused Champion's death. But Demings said that investigators had traveled to Tallahassee and had concluded that "hazing was involved in the events that occurred prior to the 911 call for assistance."

In Florida any death that occurs in connection with hazing is a third-degree felony.

"In the next few days or weeks, it will become clearer as to whether any criminal charges will be forthcoming," Demings said in a statement.

University officials acknowledged Tuesday that 30 students this semester were kicked off the band because of hazing and that there are three active investigations.

Ammons said it would be wrong to allow the band to keep performing until more is known about what happened to Champion.

"I think we need to stop and give ourselves the opportunity to find out the facts," Ammons said. "And until we do I just don't think it's appropriate to have the band performing and representing the university."

And Ammons didn't stop at the Marching 100. He suspended all bands and ensembles that operate under the supervision of the university music department. The move affects more than 400 students, but it comes after football season when the band has most of its performances. Its last show was during the annual Florida Classic against Bethune-Cookman.

The Marching 100 -- whose rich history includes performing at several Super Bowls and representing the U.S. in Paris at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution -- was scheduled to perform at the fall commencement on Dec. 16.

Music department chairman Julian White, who's the director of bands, was at the news conference where the suspension was announced, but he did not comment. White did not respond to a phone call requesting comment.

Band members told The Tallahassee Democrat before the band was suspended that they would be dismissed from the Marching 100 if they spoke to the media.

Champion's father, also Robert Champion, said his son always wanted to be in the band.

"He did what he wanted to do and he reached the plateau that he wanted to be," he told Atlanta's WSB-TV. "I think he was in pretty good condition. He ate and he trained and had no medical condition that I know of."

The Associated Press left a voice message at a number listed for the Champions. The line later was busy.

Ammons also said that he was creating a special task force to review whether there have been ongoing inappropriate band customs or traditions.

Ammons said the school will cooperate with Orange County deputies who are investigating the death.

This isn't the first time that the Marching 100 has been confronted with hazing allegations.

Tallahassee police back in 1998 opened, and then closed, an investigation into an incident where a band member was hit more than 300 times with paddles as part of an initiation into the clarinet section. Police at the time dropped the case by saying the band member's participation in the event was voluntary. In 1989, eight band members were charged with battery and jailed allegedly for holding a student against his will and beating his head with their elbows. Prosecutors dropped the charges after FAMU disciplined the suspects.

Ammons, who earned both his bachelor and master's degree from FAMU, said he was "committed to making certain that we end this practice here at Florida A&M University."

"I'm very disappointed that we are at this point in the life of this university and we are here in 2011 dealing with an issue that should have been long, long past on our campus," he said.

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