Author: Stuart, Reginald
Date published: January 5, 2012
Florida A&M University, or FAMU, has been readying for months to mark its 125th anniversary this year with a series of high-profile events including a 50-state running of a symbolic torch. However, such celebratory events will be facing tough competition for attention as the weeks and months ahead are expected be marked by more and more traumatic fallout for the school after the hazing death in November of FAMU marching band drum major Robert Champion.
Just days before the holiday season recess, the FAMU community heard the death had been officially ruled a homicide, with Champion dying from multiple blows to his body allegedly from some fellow band members engaged in the hazing incident. It occurred on a chartered bus that was to transport band members back to their campus in Tallahassee from a football game in Orlando. Hazing is illegal in Florida.
Classes resumed early this month with FAMU juggling a shopping list of challenges that have nothing and everything to do with the tone and potential success of the anniversary celebration.
For starters, FAMU's 400-plus member band remains on probation for the rest of the school year, possibly longer, meaning performances at bowl games for the rest of this school year are out as is a much- anticipated performance of the school's wind ensemble set for New York City's historic Carnegie Hall.
FAMU faces two investigations by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. One investigation stems from the marching band hazing incident. The other focuses on the handling of some school funds related to its music program, including the marching band.
Law enforcement authorities in Florida were reportedly focusing on some 34 FAMU band members in connection with the hazing incident that caused Champion's death. Depending on the outcome of the investigation, some of the students could face arrest with potential charges ranging from hazing to manslaughter to second degree murder. Trials in the absence of guilty pleas could take weeks, if not months.
Meanwhile, trustees of the school were readying this month for an annual performance review of FAMU President Dr. James Amnions. Amnions' fate as president is uncertain based on developments since the hazing death. Early last month, FAMU trustees voted 8-5 to "reprimand" Amnions over his handling of the band incident. A week later, in the final days of the school year, the trustees rejected a call by Florida Gov. Rick Scott to suspend Amnions pending the outcome of the various investigations. Their decision was buttressed by a warning from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, or SACS, that embracing the governor's call "will jeopardize the accreditation of the university" costing its students millions of dollars in federal financial aid.
Scott said after the trustees' vote that he stood by his call for Ammons to step aside during the investigation. That sentiment may gather some momentum within the Florida Legislature, which this month begins its 2012 session at the state capital, situated mere blocks from the FAMU campus.
Should Ammons survive his performance review and any other potential reprisals from the governor or state legislature, the school still faces reviews by several task forces. A hazing panel appointed by Ammons, which was put on hold pending the criminal investigation, may still move forward and pursue its assessment of school policies and practices that allowed hazing to go on for years at the school. Separately, the Florida Board of Governors, the state's highest higher education oversight panel, has announced it will make a similar review of the school.
Ammons is not the only high-profile FAMU administrator whose future with the school is likely to consume much of the time and attention of the FAMU community during its big anniversary year. The status of Dr. Julian White, FAMU's veteran band director and chair of the music department, also is likely to be decided this year.
A few weeks after the hazing death, Ammons, a FAMU alum, relieved White of his duties and notified White he would be fired in December over his handling of the incident. By mid- December, upon the encouragement of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Ammons reversed course and placed White on leave pending the outcome of the criminal investigation.
White, a FAMU fixture for some four decades, has since retained a lawyer who is seeking White's reinstatement to his old job. White also has released a number of documents showing he had alerted his superiors to his efforts earlier this school year to address the hazing problem in the marching band. His ongoing efforts to regain his job and reputation could take months.
Also to be resolved is the suspension of the marching band. Once the investigation is completed, Ammons has said a task force will be organized to help make that decision.
Student leaders at FAMU, hoping to help repair damage to the school's reputation stemming from the death of Champion, are expected to continue an effort launched last month to get peers across the campus to sign an anti-hazing agreement.
"In order for us to move on, we must address the problems of hazing by collectively committing to the eradication of hazing on this campus," says FAMU Student Government Association President Breyon Love, a senior majoring in business administration.
The FAMU Student Government Association held a campuswide "anti-hazing" forum early last month - attendance was mandatory for all officially sanctioned campus groups.
Love, who described the passing of Champion as "a tragic shock to the FAMU community," did not respond to requests for a clarification of the penalties a group could face for not attending the forum. Generally, sanctions could run the gamut from withdrawal of financial support to being banned from campus.
Little noticed at its late December board meeting was a decision by trustees to meet at least weekly, if only by phone, in an effort to stay better informed of quickly unfolding developments stemming from the hazing incident.
Observers close to the FAMU situation say the timeline of events in the days immediately following Champion's Nov. 19 death presented the appearance of school administrators and trustees moving too slowly in publicly responding to the matter. That perceived lapse of time cost Ammons and the FAMU Board of Trustees credibility among state officials, which in turn allowed state law enforcement officials to exert more influence on the turn of events.
"There have to be some consequences" for the marching band, says FAMU national alumni association president and former band member Tommy Mitchell.
The challenge is not easy, says Mitchell, as the school will try to spare "innocent" band members (those who do not engage in hazing) while taking decisive action aimed at ridding the band of the culture of hazing.
"Some students who were not involved will suffer," says Mitchell. "When you talk about the band, you are talking about a lot of students on scholarships. The question is how do you punish the innocent? We really now have to take a hard look."
Mitchell says the larger story of FAMU will have to be told boldly this year by alumni around the nation and the school administration if the school is to keep the fallout from the hazing death from overshadowing the anniversary celebration. For sure, the death will not be ignored, Mitchell says. "We (the alumni) do think there should be some consequences for his death," says Mitchell.