Officials at Florida A&M University are suddenly finding themselves having to deal with a tragedy that was in the making for a long time and did not need to happen: the death of a student and band member from apparent hazing.
Mr. Robert Champion, 26, was discovered unresponsive on a bus parked outside a hotel in Orlando. Police reported he had been vomiting and had complained about breathing difficulties before he collapsed.
The Florida Department of Law Enforcement, on orders from Gov. Rick Scott, has joined the Orange County Sheriff’s Office to investigate Mr. Champion’s death but already law enforcement officials and an attorney for his family have said he died from some sort of hazing.
The university fired the longtime band director, Mr. Julian White, suspended performances by the famed Marching “100” band and created an independent panel to investigate the matter. Those are commendable steps but they have obviously come too late to save Mr. Champion.
There can be little doubt that hazing has occurred at FAMU, with at least three widely reported cases — one in 2011, two in 2008 and another as late as 2009. The hazing victims had to go to the hospital; one of them suffered kidney damage.
In fact, the university has acknowledged that 30 students were removed from the band over hazing incidents just this semester and three investigations into hazing are actually ongoing.
So there was ample evidence that hazing — which is a crime under Florida law — was taking place. There is evidence, also, that action was being taken when incidents of hazing were discovered. But clearly not enough was done to put an end to the practice once and for all. Since that did not happen, responsibility for what has taken place cannot be just that of the fired band director. It goes up the command chain all the way to the highest levels.
The FDLE and police investigation will uncover criminal liability and there is little doubt that appropriate action will be taken. But, at another level, very serious damage has been done to the reputation of one of the nation’s top historically black universities and the independent panel which the president, Mr. James Ammons, has set up must move swiftly and with utmost transparency to shed light on this sad chapter in FAMU’s history.
Neither action will comfort Mr. Champion’s family but both can have the effect of ensuring that his death will not have been in vain.