Thirteen Charged in FAMU Marching Band Hazing Death

Thirty-three people connected with hazing incidents involving the Florida A & M University (FAMU) marching band have been charged by Florida law enforcement officials with violating the state’s tough anti-hazing law, a state attorney in Orlando announced Wednesday.

Thirteen people, 11 of whom face third degree felony charges, were charged in connection with the Nov. 19 hazing death of 26 year-old FAMU drum major Robert Champion. Felony charges carry minimum prison sentences of six years, if convicted.

At least 20 other people face misdemeanor charges stemming from other FAMU hazing incidents unrelated to Champion’s death, said Lawson Lamar, the state attorney for Florida’s Ninth Judicial Circuit. It includes Orange County and Osceola counties.

Lamar did not name any of the suspects, detail the charges against each person, or clarify whether any were current students, employees at the university, or alumni who were on his list of those being charged Wednesday. He indicated more actions could be forthcoming and urged people with any knowledge of hazing at the school to come forward.

By early Wednesday evening, several Florida media outlets were reporting the arrest in Tallahassee (where FAMU is located) of two people –former FAMU drum major Rikki Wills and a Caleb Jackson – on felony hazing charges.      

The long-awaited announcement of charges in connection with Champion’s death comes on the heels of confirmation by FAMU’s Vice President for Legal Affairs and General Counsel Avery McKnight that the university had taken “appropriate employment action” against two professors in the FAMU music department.

Later confirmed as dismissals, the action against the two professors, identified in Florida media reports as 38-year-old Anthony Simons III and 37 year-old Diron Holloway, stemmed from a finding they had been involved in hazing activities involving band members. It could not be determined if either of the teachers was on the list of people Florida authorities are charging with violating the state’s hazing law.

A statement issued Wednesday afternoon by FAMU officials made no reference to Wednesday’s hazing law actions by the state. The statement, issued on behalf of the university’s president and chair of its board of trustees, quoted the two as saying:

“We are vigorously working to eradicate hazing from FAMU and doing everything within our power to ensure an incident like this never happens again. Our hearts and prayers are with the Champion family and the extended FAMU family as we all continue to deal with this tragedy.”

Tallahassee attorney Chuck Hobbs, who represents former FAMU music department chair and band director, Dr. Julian White, who was relieved of his job over his handling of the hazing death incident, praised Wednesday’s action.

“Now that arrests have been made and the criminal investigation into the hazing that led to Robert Champion’s death has been concluded, it is our position that (FAMU) President Ammons and/or the Board of Trustees should finally consider our petition to have Dr. White fully reinstated as Director of Bands and Chair of the Music Department of Florida A & M University,” says Hobbs.

“We maintain that the evidence we provided following Dr. White’s initial termination for alleged incompetence in reporting hazing—is clearly unfounded by the record evidence. Most of the decisive actions that the university has taken since Robert Champion’s death were largely based on Dr. White’s reporting both known and alleged incidents of hazing,” says Hobbs.

Acting on White’s request and a long list of other pending decisions, including when suspensions against the school band, other music department groups and scores of campus clubs will be lifted, is likely to take more time than Wednesday’s announcement of charges.

Termination of the two music professors is considered “an ongoing proceeding,” according to university counsel McKnight, an indication the two may have been formally notified of the university’s intent to fire them and they anticipated that action by resigning.

Also, two other inquiries have yet to be settled. One, involving possible fraudulent handling of band funds, is being pursued by the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. The other is a Board of Governors inquiry into whether school officials acted appropriately in handling the fallout from the Champion death. University officials had no comment on the status of those two inquiries.