The state’s pre-eminent historically black university has come under a cloud in the suspected hazing death of a member of its famed marching band.

Robert Champion, 26, an Atlanta resident who attended Florida A&M University in Tallahassee, was found unresponsive on a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel the night of Nov. 19 after the school’s football team lost to rival Bethune-Cookman University.


Police said Champion had been vomiting and complained he couldn’t breathe shortly before he collapsed.

The cause of death has not 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, the Associated Press reported.

Attorney Christopher Chestnut said the family of the drum major planned to sue the school, according to the AP.

Law enforcement officials have said they believe some form of hazing took place before 911 was called. Chestnut said he believes the injuries Champion sustained were consistent with hazing.

In Florida, any death involving hazing is a third-degree felony.

The fallout from Champion’s death was immediate. On Nov. 22, the school shut down the Marching “100” and the rest of the music department’s performances.

The next day, longtime band director Julian White was fired. Gov. Rick Scott said state investigators would join the probe and the college announced the formation of an independent review panel headed by former Florida Attorney General Bob Butterworth and former Tallahassee Police Chief  Walt McNeil.

Chestnut said Champion’s family believes the actions are “too little, too late.”

On Friday, Solomon L. Badger, FAMU Board of Trustees chairman, issued a statement describing Champion’s death as “unfortunate” and said FAMU President James H. Ammons “has responded appropriately to this tragic situation and he has taken measures to get to the root cause of what has happened.”

Badger confirmed that Ammons has set up “an independent task force to review patterns of behavior by the band and to make recommendations regarding matters that should be addressed at the administrative level.”

“He has suspended performances of all band ensembles, including the Marching “100” and has started appropriate personnel actions to also address the current situation,” Badger said.

Badger noted that the Orange County Sherriff’s Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement were investigating Champion’s death.

Chestnut, the attorney, said the family hoped a lawsuit against the school would help raise awareness about the issue of band hazing.

“This is not an isolated incident,” Chestnut said.

According to the AP, “numerous incidents” had taken place at FAMU. In 2001 Marcus Parker suffered kidney damage after being beaten by a paddle. Three years earlier, Ivery Luckey, a clarinet player from Ocala, said he had been paddled about 300 times and had to go to the hospital. Some 20 band members were suspended and Luckey filed a lawsuit against the state Board of Regents. Reports indicate he settled for $50,000.

Retired sociology professor and hazing expert Richard Sigal, who was hired by Luckey’s attorneys to testify at the trial, told AP that he had 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,” Sigal said.

FAMU officials acknowledged that 30 students have been kicked off the band this semester due to hazing incidents and three investigations are currently underway, the AP reported.

Gov. Scott, in calling in the FDLE, said he wanted investigators “to assure that the circumstances leading to Mr. Champion’s death become fully known and that if there are individuals directly or indirectly responsible for this death, they are appropriately brought to justice and held accountable.”

Band director White, who was fired in the wake of Champion’s death, graduated from FAMU with a music education degree and became a faculty member in 1972, according to the university’s Web site. Under him, the Marching “100” consistently received superior ratings in marching and concert, has performed at several Super Bowls and represented the U.S. in Paris at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.

Photo: Robert Champion