Elaine Anderson has been following the fallout from the hazing death of a 26-year old Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University [FAMU] drum major with increasing dismay.
Anderson, a 49-year-old Tallahassee real estate broker and mother of two, said Robert Champion's death was totally unnecessary and as details of his death emerge, has cast a pall over two renowned institutions: the university and the famed Florida A&M Marching 100.
"It's disappointing first and foremost because someone died," she said. "But it's very disappointing that an HBCU [historically black college or university] was involved. And it's not just that, but it's also because the Marching 100 is a classic. The repercussions go far beyond the school and will likely affect different elements of the institution for years to come."
Champion, an Atlanta resident, died last November after what police described as an incident of hazing. He died after witnesses said he ran a gauntlet where he was beaten with drum fists, bass drum mallets and drumsticks. Champion is alleged to have entered a bus in a parking lot in Orlando at the Florida Classic football game in the hopes of gaining his peers respect by enduring the abuse.
Called the "cross over," successful completion of the ritual – making it from the front to the back of the bus – meant full initiation into the band. Champion died later on the night of November 19 from the complications of blunt force trauma.
A criminal investigation into Champion's death led to the arrest of 13 band members. Eleven of them were charged with felony hazing for allegedly beating him to death. A judge set the trial date for October.
The Marching 100 has a storied past with invitations to perform at lavish events and ceremonies, several Super Bowls and presidential inauguration ceremonies.
Champion's death has pulled back the curtain and exposed a culture of hazing, a pervasive practice that has been a not-so-secret part of the marching band for decades.
Yet even as band members past and present detailed examples of beatings and physical violence, school officials from the president on down, claim no knowledge of the band members' activities.
Sharon Saunders, FAMU's chief communications officer, said two investigations are still underway. One is being conducted by the Florida Board of Governors concerning the administration's response to hazing reports and institutional controls to prevent hazing. And the other, a criminal investigation, is being conducted by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement related to the use of band finances.
Since Champion's death, FAMU President James Ammons has been buffeted by criticism and endured increasing calls for him to step aside. Despite a recent vote of no-confidence by FAMU's Board of Trustees, Ammons refuses to resign promising that he will fix the problems.
The 8-4 vote reflects the trustees' displeasure with Ammons' handling of the hazing death, and concerns about his management of a range of issues, especially what board members see as a lax attitude toward band management prior to Champion's death.
Ammons, a FAMU alumnus who served as provost and assumed the presidency in 2007, remains defiant.
"This is my university. Until the final bell rings I am going to serve as president of Florida A&M," he said, according to published reports.
James W. Haskins, Jr., a retired Professor Emeritus in Journalism, said the decent thing for Ammons to do is to step aside.
"People who say they didn't know are lying. I support the notion that the buck stops with the president," said Haskins, 79, who began teaching at FAMU in 1980. "You can't haze someone without someone saying something. The ultimate responsibility is his. There's no way around it. I think he should resign. Other key players were forced out. There's more than enough culpability to go around."
Haskins described FAMU as a fine institution that unfortunately is "full of deadwood" and plagued by pockets of nepotism, incest, mediocrity and an unwillingness by those who run the university to make the hard choices.
"FAMU really is an outstanding institution because they understand survival in a white world with white people," he explained. "But FAMU continues to fuel its own downfall. Too many people have no backbone or integrity. They see racism and don't understand it, won't stand up and fight this racism and discrimination, won't fight it and seem to busy driving around in their Lexuses, demanding to be called, 'Doctor, doctor ..."'
Ammons suspended the band last year and announced recently that the band would remain off the field through 2013. Other casualties include longtime Band Leader Julian White who was forced out after more than 40 years at the helm; and two music department professors who stepped down earlier this year when allegations surfaced that they were present while band fraternity pledges were hazed. And as the investigation deepened, university officials eventually admitted that 101 of the 457-member marching band were not FAMU students.
In response to the band's problems, the FAMU Board of Trustees has revised its anti-hazing regulation. An anti-hazing plan has been developed by the university at the direction of the trustees. Elements of the plan include the creation of an Anti-Hazing Special Assistant to the president, with broad-ranging authority to address hazing issues throughout the university; the establishment of a FAMU Compliance Officer for the Music Department, with direct reporting to the Special Assistant for Anti-Hazing; the re-organization and expansion of staff in the Office of Judicial Affairs to facilitate the adjudication of hazing issues and other matters pertaining to the student code of conduct. After input by trustees, the university will implement the plan.
Saunders acknowledged that it is "particularly challenging ... to stop [this crime] because of the conspiracy of secrecy and silence between the perpetrator and the 'victim.' However, because of the special nature of this crime, FAMU is putting anti-hazing initiatives in place to help rid the campus of hazing."
"We also know that stamping out hazing requires a personal commitment from our students to treat themselves and their fellow students with respect and dignity," she added.
Saunders said many students have expressed concern about the attention this matter has received and remain committed to leading the national effort to reduce the incidents of hazing.
School-wide, the university has lurched from scandal to scandal, including financial mismanagement, faulty audits, countless examples of poor judgment, a series of ethical lapses and allegations that minors at the university's Developmental Research School were sexually assaulted.
Anderson fears that with all this turmoil, FAMU may be mortally wounded.
"We stand to lose an icon of our culture," she said. "It's very sad to see that happen. It points to the sloppiness in some black institutions and corruption which seems to be unending. They shoot themselves in the foot and more dirt is exposed even as they are trying to escape a financial crisis."
"We can't blame white people. We really have to look at who we are as a people. We just don't seem to have a sense of discipline and dignity. School officials should have had enough respect for what they had achieved and guarded it more carefully."
Haskins, an Ohio native, recalls pledging Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity and when he was attacked as a part of the pledging ritual, he struck back.
"I had people flying all over the place like they were Superman," he said with a chuckle. "They knew my name after that."
Haskins questioned why anyone would subject themselves to the type of abuse he knows is part and parcel of rituals in the band, sororities, fraternities and other campus groups and organizations.
Although he worked with the Atomic Energy Commission as an astrophysicist, with Dupont as a senior public relation practitioner and in a range of other jobs, he chose to teach at FAMU for a specific reason.
"I thought maybe I could be instrumental in changing some young minds," he said. "But most kids weren't as sophisticated or cared what was going on. They were like their parents: Talk [stuff] and do nothing. I have no intimate knowledge, but FAMU stayed in trouble because Negroes stole the money."
"FAMU could have been a fantastic thing, a break from the past. I know many talented people who could have come here, wanted to come in and shake out things. But their biggest opponents were those holding onto the status quo. I've had a good look at the problems at FAMU. I can't believe I came here 32 years ago and it's the same. It's a damn shame."