Robert Champion, 26, a student at Florida A&M University, was found unresponsive on Nov. 19 on a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel after the Florida Classic between FAMU and archrival Bethune Cookman University.
Champion’s death has sparked a criminal investigation by the FDLE and the Orange County Sheriff’s Office, as well as a probe into whether the university ignored past warnings about hazing.
Police said hazing occurred before Champion’s death but had not yet released any extensive details on exactly what happened to him. A 911 tape included a caller saying Champion had vomit in his mouth and nose in the moments before he died.
The issue of hazing at the university is also being investigated by the Florida Board of Governors which is looking into how FAMU handled concerns about hazing.
The FDLE had initially also asked the board to suspend any investigation into hazing while the FDLE and other law enforcement agencies investigate Champion’s death. But board spokeswoman Kelly Layman said FDLE Commissioner Gerald Bailey and Chancellor Frank Brogan later discussed the investigation and Bailey agreed the probe could continue because it wasn’t examining Champion’s death or any related hazing.
The board’s inspector general won’t contact any potential witnesses in the Champion case and will work with FDLE to make sure it doesn’t interfere with law enforcement.
A FAMU statement said university President James H. Ammons postponed the work of the task force that had been scheduled to meet on Monday, Dec. 5. Task force members include former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth and former Tallahassee Police Chief Walt McNeil.
“Based upon input from the governor’s office and
in light of the recently announced Nov. 29 investigation by the Board of Governors, I believe it will be prudent to postpone the work of the task force to allow this and other investigations to be pursued with our full cooperation and attention,” Ammons said.
The statement said Ammons discussed the matter on Nov. 30 with officials in the office of Gov. Rick Scott. A day earlier, Ava Parker, who chairs the Florida Board of Governors, sent a letter to Solomon Badger, chairman of the FAMU Board of Trustees, notifying him that it had asked Chancellor Frank Brogan to initiate an investigation to determine whether the university administration took appropriate action to deal with hazing.
“We will give the Board of Governors Office of Inspector General our full support,” Ammons said.
Ammons, in a memo to the FAMU board of trustees, said four students connected to the incident were expelled Nov. 22, three days after the tragedy. He had earlier fired longtime band director Julian White and suspended the Marching “100” for an indefinite period from any future activities.
White has added prominent South Florida trial lawyer Willie Gary to serve as co-counsel with Tallahassee attorney Chuck Hobbs in an effort to challenge his dismissal. White contends he repeatedly told university officials about problems with hazing.
FAMU announced Wed-nesday that White’s status had been changed from dismissal to administrative leave because of the criminal investigation into Champion’s death.
Gov. Scott, who ordered the FDLE to look into Champion’s death, said Friday that Amnmons was correct to postpone the work of the university task force. He said investigations by law enforcement agencies and the Florida Board of Governors should take priority over the university’s inquiry.
The governor called Champion’s death “horrible” and said state leaders must work to ensure that a similar incident never happens again. He said that was why he called on all 11 state universities to review their anti-hazing policies even though the state university system already requires all schools to have anti-hazing rules and penalties.
“We cannot have another child, another student, die this way,” Scott said. “You send your child to college. You expect them to come back. You don’t expect something to happen to them. This stuff has to be so infuriating as a parent.”
Scott’s comments came while a group of Tallahassee ministers held a news conference to announce formation of a task force charged with battling hazing at all
historically black colleges and universities.
“We are aware that hazing has been ingrained, ingrained and ingrained into the culture,” said the Rev. R.B. Holmes, pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church in Tallahassee. “At this point, to be able to respect and honor the legacy of Robert
Champion, we must come together to make sure there will never be another Robert Champion who will die this kind of way. Morally and spiritually it’s time for us to take the high road. It is a moral issue, a spiritual issue. We’re talking about it from a spiritual process. Jesus was hazed on Calvary.”
Members of the task force include the presidents of Florida Memorial University in Miami Gardens, Edward Waters College in Jacksonville and South
Carolina State University.
Meanwhile, former FAMU president Walter L. Smith predicted that the school will suffer consequences from Champion’s death but that it will not spell the end of the Marching “100” band.
“All of us grieve for the family, and I’ve prayed for the family,” Smith said in an interview in West Palm Beach Saturday where he was a guest at the Links Inc.’s annual luncheon.
“But you must grow from these types of tragic experiences and try to do better,” he said.
This story is based on reports from the Associated Press and staff reports, with contributions by Daphne Taylor in West Palm Beach.
Photo: Robert Champion