While FAMU Graduation Expected to Inspire, Hazing Controversy Lingers

When Florida A & M University holds graduation ceremonies Saturday for an expected 1,300 prospective graduates, much attention will be focused on senior Nicholas E. Young. 

Like many of his fellow students, the 22-year-old social work major, who plans to go to graduate school, almost didn’t make it. He was abandoned at birth only to be found covered in ant bites in a Martin County, Fla., orange grove. He was raised by family and friends in the community where he was found, says a FAMU statement about the fortunate student. Many plan to attend the Saturday graduation events to celebrate the milestone in Young’s life.

“It feels amazing to know that no matter what obstacles are placed in front of you, you can always reach your goals,” Young told FAMU officials. “I attribute my accomplishments to everyone who has helped me get to this point and believed that I could make it.”

The celebration of Young’s rescue and achievements is likely to be a welcomed respite for Florida A & M (FAMU). The internationally famous institution marks its 125th anniversary this year, a milestone in and of itself worth honoring. Yet, it is closing this academic community facing months of uncertainty on a number of fronts.

Its famous marching band, the Marching 100, remains on suspension, a status stemming from last fall’s death by hazing of band drum major Robert Champion. The future of the band and other school music groups is uncertain.

The administrative leave status of longtime band director and school of music chair Julian White remains unresolved. White, who was relieved of his post over his handling of the band’s hazing problems, is contesting the school’s decision.

Scores of campus sanctioned organizations, from Greek letter clubs to the campus newspaper, are still subject to a campus-wide suspension imposed this winter as part of the university’s efforts to send a strong message that hazing of all kinds must stop.

Meanwhile the legal status of the students who engaged in the deadly hazing incident remains in question, as people on and off the campus await action by Florida law enforcement officials.

In many respects, FAMU is on partial lock-down, as it delays moving on these issues while awaiting some outcome from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement (FDLE) investigation into the drum major’s death.

FAMU, which initially moved to fire the band director from his job and suspended several band members in connection with the death, quickly reversed course on both actions, yielding to a request from the FDLE to refrain from taking any decisive actions until the agency’s criminal investigation into what has been declared a homicide is completed. The investigative records of the Orange County, Fla., Sheriff’s Department’s investigation into the Champion death were turned over to the State Attorney General in late March.

School officials have been mute on the matter since then, prompting some observers to speculate there could be arrests soon after tomorrow’s graduation ceremonies and others wondering on a larger scale when the school will address the myriad issues facing it.

For sure, there is no lack of interest in seeing those involved in the hazing incident brought to justice.

“It’s easy to criticize the university,” says Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith University in Arkansas. “I want the persons responsible for his murder to be held responsible,” says Kimbrough, who does a daily tweet on the number of days since the drum major’s death that there have been no arrests.

“I’m definitely in support of FAMU,” says Kimbrough, who served as an expert witness for the university several years ago in a court case involving a hazing incident in which a band member was repeatedly paddled. The case was eventually settled out of court.

For now, however, Kimbrough says the FAMU leadership is being unfairly blamed for the misdeeds of students who knew better. “The president wasn’t on the bus,” says Kimbrough. “The board of the university wasn’t on the bus. Let’s deal with the actual people who committed the crime.”