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Lawsuits Planned in FAMU Death

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ATLANTA (WAOK/AJC)-The parents of a drum major who died after the Florida A and M-Bethune Cookman game, say they will file a lawsuit against the university in the hazing death of their son.

Now a hazing expert says the incident should be dealth with in a swift and forceful fashion. “They are going to have to treat this like a fraternity and sorority case,” said Walter M. Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College. “You shut down the band for several years.”

According to the AJC, that would be a major blow for the historically black university, known as much for its marching band as it is for its academics. But it is a needed one said Kimbrough, the author of “Black Greek 101: The Culture, Customs and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities,” which examined the black Greek culture, including hazing.

Over the last decade, there have been at two major hazing incidents involving FAMU’s Marching 100. At least 30 members of the band had been suspended this semester over hazing incidents, according to recent reports from Tallahassee.

“If this was a fraternity death, the chapter gets suspended. That is the boldest, most controversial step the school could make,” said Kimbrough, adding that if he had to make that call, people would call for his head. “But it is the right thing to do. This is the most famous university band in the country, black or white. How do you deal with this entity that is the face of the university?”

Although no one has yet to be charged and no arrests have been made, FAMU officials have indicated that hazing was involved in the death of 26-year-old Champion, a DeKalb County resident who was found unresponsive on the back of a band bus in Orlando last Saturday.

Champion’s family has hired an attorney to represent them in a pending lawsuit against FAMU and Julian White, the long-time band director who was dismissed this week, has hired an attorney to win his job back.

Last Saturday, after FAMU’s football team lost the Florida Classic to arch-rival Bethune-Cookman University, Champion was found inside a parked bus vomiting and complaining of shortness of breath. A clarinet player who had recently been named drum major, he collapsed and was later pronounced dead after being taken to a nearby hospital.

An official cause of death has not been determined and the Orange County medical examiner’s office said it could be months before one could be determined. Hazing is a third degree felony in Florida.

While it is commonly considered a fraternity and sorority problem, hazing has seeped into band culture. A turning point came around 1990, when the nine black Greek organizations formally banned pledging as a form of joining an organization and installed a milder intake program.

“Some of the same issues that have plagued fraternities and sororities are now in the band,” Kimbrough said. “It is, ‘You gotta earn your right to be in the band. You gotta prove yourself.’ It is a cycle that has been around forever.”

Although as a drum major, Champion was one of the most senior-members of the Marching 100, there has been speculation on blogs and social media sites that during last Saturday’s performance, he may have dropped his mace, which could have led to internal discipline by fellow members of the band.

In 2009, 20 members of Jackson State University’s band were suspended over hazing. A year earlier, two French horn players at Southern University were hospitalized after a beating.

The problem has been recurrent at FAMU. In 2001, Marcus Parker suffered kidney damage after being beaten by a paddle and eventually won a $1.8 million settlement.

Three years earlier, clarinet player Ivery Luckey was hospitalized after being paddled about 300 times. He settled for $50,000, claiming emotional and physical scarring.

Kimbrough was an expert witness in both cases.

Keith Sailor, who played percussion for the Marching 100 in the 1980s, said he was hazed while in the band. He said White was doing all he could to end the practice, noting the suspensions earlier this semester.

“The band directors make efforts to get rid of hazing. But it is an ongoing process,” Sailor said. “The same problem was there when I was in the band. I went through hazing and they are still trying to alleviate it.”

On Tuesday, FAMU President James Ammons shut down all marching band activities, while an investigation was launched. The next day, he fired White for “alleged misconduct and/or incompetence involving confirmed reports and allegations of hazing.” Calls to White and his attorney were not returned.

Sailor, who graduated in 1988, said Champion’s death was a tragedy and understood why White, who had taught him, had to be fired.

“He is the top man and he is responsible for every young life under his tutelage,” Sailor said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.

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