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Florida A&M president on ending hazing: Progress, but work remains

June 27, 2013|By Devin Kelly
  • Robert Champion was a drum major in Florida A&M University's Marching 100 band. Twelve people are charged in connection with Champion's hazing death and one other has pleaded no contest.
Robert Champion was a drum major in Florida A&M University's… (Joseph Brown III / AP )

Florida A&M University has lifted the suspension of its marching band and adopted a series of administrative and policy changes designed to prevent the types of hazing activity that led to the death of a drum major in 2011, but officials acknowledged Thursday that work still needs to be done.

Interim president Larry Robinson announced the lifting of the suspension Thursday morning. An internal crisis management team had determined that the “right conditions” were in place, Robinson said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times.  

A new administrative team has been put in place in place, he said, to maintain the updated rules and responsibilities, and a new band director was hired last month. New positions include a music department compliance officer and special assistant to the president whose sole focus will be anti-hazing.  

“It was when we had all those pieces together,” Robinson said.  “And I think we have that.”

Robinson arrived at the Tallahassee campus the week after drum major Robert Champion, 26, died of blunt-force trauma injuries after what prosecutors call the “crossing Bus C” hazing ritual. Official reports said Champion died after moving past a gantlet of fellow band members who hit him with fists, drumsticks and other objects.

Twelve band members have been charged with manslaughter and one other person pleaded no contest in October. Champion’s family has also filed a wrongful death lawsuit against FAMU.

The scandal led to the resignation of the university’s president, James Ammons, and the retirement of the band’s director, Julian White. In the weeks after Champion died, the university formed an internal crisis management team chaired by Robinson.

That team, Robinson said, has worked for 15 months formulating new policies and adding checks and balances to a system faulted in a December 2011 report for its failure to deal with earlier reports of hazing, including incidents involving the award-winning Marching 100 band.

As one example, the music department chair will no longer simultaneously serve as the band director. Meanwhile, the music department compliance officer, whose duties include monitoring practice hours and verifying the eligibility of participants, will report directly to the special assistant for anti-hazing, who reports to the president.  

Students have seen the instatement of a set of new academic requirements for band members, and a “zero tolerance” policy promised for any person who voluntarily participates, or observes and fails to report, hazing. Freshmen are required to sign an online anti-hazing pledge upon registering.

The focus on reducing hazing activity went beyond the marching band;  other campus organizations, from the Greek system to athletic teams, had a history of hazing, Robinson said.  

The university launched a website with information on hazing and a forum to allow students to anonymously report hazing activities. While more students are readily reporting incidents on the site, some of the activities do not actually qualify as hazing, Robinson said.

“However, it shows the sensitivity to it, like it’s important,” he said.

The measures are all part of what officials call a “re-branding,” an effort to showcase the positive academic work of the university in the wake of prolonged negative media attention.

But even as the university has restructured and adopted new policies, questions remain about how deep-rooted the problem is. Only days ago, the university suspended two sororities because of hazing.

Robinson acknowledged the incident as evidence of the challenge ahead for administrators.

“I don’t think anybody believes that after all the hard work we’ve done the last 15 months, as evidenced by some of the issues we had to confront during this time frame, that our work is done,” he said.

A research program begun by faculty and students last year to look into the culture of hazing is in its preliminary result stages.

Robinson said he expects the research to influence steps taken by the university against hazing, and perhaps other institutions around the country. 

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devin.kelly@latimes.com

Twitter: @devkelly17

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