FAMU band director warned of hazing
Christopher Chestnut, a Gainesville personal injury attorney, is representing the Champions
Published: Thursday, December 1, 2011 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2011 at 3:52 p.m.
The fired director of Florida A&M's famed "Marching 100" band said he repeatedly warned university leaders over two decades about the dangers of hazing and that he's been made the scapegoat for a band member's death in which the practice is suspected.
Julian White, 71, said he suspended 26 band members for hazing two weeks before drum major Robert Champion's death on Nov. 19. He reported his actions to university administrators, he said.
Hazing has been "rampant on university campuses," and the suspensions would serve notice it wouldn't be tolerated at A&M, he said.
But instead of being supported, White said, he was second-guessed, particularly from some parents of band members, and said the punishments were akin to suspending star football players.
"And so the band members were apprehensive. ‘Doc, you think we can go without 19 trombone players?'" said White, who replaced "Marching 100" founder William P. Foster as director in 1998. "And other folks. ‘Doc, do you think you can do it without them?' My comment was, it doesn't matter, I am not going to sacrifice the performance for the principle."
After A&M's football team lost its annual game against rival Bethune-Cookman, Champion collapsed on a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel. The 26-year-old junior had been vomiting and complained he couldn't breathe shortly before he became unconscious. When authorities arrived about 9:45 p.m., Champion was unresponsive. He died at a nearby hospital.
Authorities have not released any more details, except to say hazing played a role.
Less than a week later, White, a tenured professor, was fired by FAMU President James Ammons.
"I walked into his office and he said, ‘Doc, I don't know any other way to put it, this is it for you,'" White recounted. "He said ‘you can resign or you can be terminated.'"
Ammons, meanwhile, met Monday with former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth, who was named last week to head a task force investigating what led to Champion's death.
"If some strong actions had been taken, then Robert Champion may be alive now," said White, who was asked by the student's family to speak at his funeral service held Wednesday morning in Decatur, Ga.
White, who was the lead drum major as a student, said he fears the tragedy could doom the showy high-energy, high-stepping band that has performed at Super Bowls, the Grammys and presidential inaugurations and in Paris on France's 200th anniversary.
Since Champion's death, the school has shuttered the marching band and the rest of the music department's performances.
Shutting it down was a meaningful decision, White said. The band would have been the first of the Historically Black Colleges and Universities to perform at Carnegie Hall.
"That hurts," White said.
Hazing has a long history in marching bands, particularly at historically black colleges, where a spot in the band is coveted for its tradition and prominence.
FAMU has been at the center of some of the worst cases. In 2001, former band member Marcus Parker suffered kidney damage because of a beating with a paddle. Three years earlier, Ivery Luckey, a clarinet player, said he was paddled around 300 times and had to go to the hospital.
"It's a culture," White said. "Not just a Florida A&M culture, a college phenomenon."
Champion's parents said Monday their son never spoke of hazing. Robert Champion Sr. said he talked to his son just a few days before his death and everything was fine.
"I wanted to believe stuff like that wouldn't happen," he said. "I would ask my son questions, ‘Is there anything you need to tell me? Let me know.' He told me, ‘Dad everything is going OK. I'm working, trying to go to school and practice.'"
Hazing "needs to stop," said Champion's mother, Pam, during a news conference whose purpose she said was "to put this out there and let people know there has to be a change."
Family attorney Christopher Chestnut said from what they have learned, hazing played a part in the student's death.
The family hopes a lawsuit will lead to changes at FAMU and prompt other hazing victims to come forward, he said.
"We want to eradicate a culture of hazing so this doesn't happen again," said Chestnut. "Hazing is a culture of, ‘Don't ask, don't tell.' The family's message today is: ‘Please tell.'"
Champion fell in love with music at about age 6 when he saw a marching band at a parade in downtown Atlanta.
"His experience in the band was, in his words, great. Robert was happy," his mother said. "He loved the band and everything that went with it. He loved performing. That was his life. You couldn't take him out of it."
As a child, Champion would use a broom handle to mimic a band director's baton. At one point, he designed his own drum major uniform, his mother said.
"You put him on a field in a performance and he would give you a show," she said.
His first instrument was the clarinet, which he learned to play in the fifth grade. A middle school teacher recognized his talent and he was tapped to lead the school's orchestra and perform with the Southwest DeKalb High School band as an eighth grader. He could also sing and play keyboards.
Chapel Hill Middle School band director Natalie Brown said she'll never forget his outgoing personality and phenomenal musicianship.
"He was always smiling. He never gave me a hard time," she said. "If class was about to start, he'd get everyone quiet and start the warm-up process. He had the drum major mentality way back then."
He was so enthusiastic about performing that his mother would call him "Mr. Band."
At times he struggled with his schoolwork and he didn't immediately go to Florida A&M after high school. But he eventually enrolled, balancing a job with school and his band commitments.
In late 2010, he was named drum major.
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