by Freida Frisaro
MIAMI (AP)—The family of a Florida A&M University drum major who died in what authorities suspect was a hazing incident will sue the school, an attorney said Nov. 25.
The family of Robert Champion, 26, spent the holiday weekend planning Champion’s funeral, attorney Christopher Chestnut said.
|FINAL PERFORMANCE—Robert Champion, second from right, a drum major in Florida A&M University’s Marching 100 band, and others perform during halftime of a football game Nov. 19 in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/The Tampa Tribune, Joseph Brown III)
The Atlanta resident was found on a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel Nov. 19 after the school’s football team lost to rival Bethune-Cookman. Police said Champion, a clarinet player who recently was named drum major, had been vomiting and complained he couldn’t breathe shortly before he collapsed.
The cause of Champion’s death hasn’t been determined. Preliminary autopsy results were inconclusive, and a spokeswoman with the Orange County medical examiner’s office said it could take up to three months to learn exactly what killed him.
Law enforcement officials have said they believe some form of hazing took place before 911 was called. Chestnut said he also believes the injuries Champion sustained were consistent with hazing.
A spokesman for the school, which was closed for the Thanksgiving holiday, could not be reached for comment Friday.
In Florida, any death involving hazing is a third-degree felony.
The fallout from Champion’s death was immediate. On Nov. 22, the school shuttered the famed marching band and the rest of the music department’s performances. The next day, longtime band director Julian White was fired. And Florida Gov. Rick Scott said state investigators would join the probe and the college announced an independent review led by a former state attorney general.
White became a faculty member at the school in 1972, according to the university’s website, and his bands consistently received superior ratings in marching and concert. The Marching 100 band has performed at several Super Bowls and represented the U.S. in Paris at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.
White told reporters in Tallahassee on Monday that he wants his job back and feels he was unfairly dismissed.
Tallahassee attorney Chuck Hobbs said White, a tenured professor, had tried for years to get administration backing on his efforts to stop hazing.
“Hazing within the Marching 100 has often been met with reckless indifference by White’s superior officers who often ignored his requests for assistance,” Hobbs wrote in a letter to Florida A&M President James Ammons.
The attorney said Champion’s family hopes a lawsuit against the school will help raise awareness about the issue of band hazing.
Hazing cases have cropped up in marching bands, especially at historically Black colleges where a spot in the marching band is coveted. In many cases, the bands are revered almost as much as the sports teams for which they play.
In 2008, two first-year French horn players in Southern University’s marching band were hospitalized after a beating. In 2009, 20 members of Jackson State University’s band were suspended over hazing accusations.
There have been numerous incidents at FAMU. One of the worst cases occurred in 2001 and involved former FAMU band member Marcus Parker, who suffered kidney damage because of a beating with a paddle.
Three years earlier, Ivery Luckey, a clarinet player from Ocala, Fla., said he was paddled about 300 times, sending him to the hospital. Some 20 band members were suspended, and Luckey sued the state Board of Regents. Reports indicate he settled for $50,000.
Retired sociology professor and hazing expert Richard Sigal was hired by Luckey’s attorneys to testify at the trial. Sigal, who has held anti-hazing workshops, told the AP that he previously found an acceptance of hazing at the university.
“There was a hazing subculture that existed, that everyone knew about, and everyone turned away from and didn’t do anything about. And that was at the core of what the issue was at A&M,” he said.