In the latest of a series of head spinning moves days before the school’s winter break, a sharply divided Florida A & M University (FAMU) board of trustees has “agreed to publicly reprimand” FAMU President James Ammons over his “response” to the November death of a school band drum major after a suspected hazing incident on a band trip.
The reprimand, approved by a vote of 8 to 5 toward the end of discussions and meetings Wednesday and Thursday among members of the FAMU board of trustees, came on the heels of announcements by the school that it was bowing to the wishes of state authorities and reversing all disciplinary actions stemming from the student’s death until law enforcement agents have finished their probe of the incident.
In that regard, the school reversed this week’s expulsion of four students—all band members—in connection with the hazing incident. Prior to that, the school announced it had reversed a decision by Ammons to terminate band director Julian White and was instead placing him on “leave” effective Dec. 6.
In both situations, the school said it was reversing course as a result of recommendations from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement and would await the outcome of the investigation “before any personnel or disciplinary actions are taken.”
The Thursday reprimand of the FAMU president was the latest blow to the school’s morale, which has been shattered in recent weeks by the stream of embarrassing reports about repeated incidents of hazing among various segments of the 400-plus-member band. The reports have been illuminated by disclosures about repeated admonitions from the band director and others but how those warnings were being routinely ignored by some band members. The stream of stories has prompted a few observers to suggest that officials above the band director appear to move with less than haste to back up his actions with tougher sanctions against the students involved.
The meeting of the FAMU board of trustees was its first since the death of drum major Robert Champion. At one point during the public discussions, a trustee suggested Ammons also be placed on administrative leave. The suggestion did not move forward due to lack of support.
Observers close to the FAMU situation say the timeline of events since the Nov. 19 death has presented the appearance of school administrators and trustees moving too slowly in publicly addressing the matter. They say it has cost the school president and its board of trustees’ credibility among state officials in being able to take action on the hazing matter effectively, an appearance that has allowed state law enforcement officials to exert more influence on the turn of events.
In an apparent response to that appearance and the public fallout over the situation, the FAMU board of trustees also announced Thursday it was hiring a public relations firm “as soon as possible” to assist with media relations “and to develop a crisis management plan.”
The board said it was using an “emergency exception” from its standard procurement procedures, allowing it to move quickly in recruiting help. It did not detail what was entailed by its “reprimand” of the president.