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Fallout From FAMU: Ga. High Schools Suspend Bands

ATLANTA — The fallout from the death of a Florida A&M University drum major broadened Wednesday to nearly two dozen high schools in Georgia, where marching band activities were suspended over concerns of “inappropriate physical activity” between band mates.

A metro Atlanta school district began investigating after Robert Champion died Nov. 19. The Southwest DeKalb High graduate was found unresponsive on a bus parked in front of an Orlando hotel after a university football game, and authorities said his death involved hazing.

Another Florida A&M student, Bria Shante Hunter, who also attended Southwest DeKalb, told police she was severely beaten in a hazing ritual about three weeks before Champion’s death.

Hunter, a freshman and clarinet player, said she was repeatedly hit in her legs by members of the “Red Dawg Order,” a band club for Georgia natives. Authorities have said Champion was hazed, but have not described how.

Three band members were arrested in Hunter’s case and charged with hazing. Two were also charged with battery.

Meanwhile, Florida authorities looking into Champion’s death opened a new investigation after they uncovered possible employee fraud and misconduct at the university, according to documents released Wednesday.

In Georgia, Walter Woods, spokesman for the DeKalb County school district, said they were investigating marching bands at the district’s 21 high schools after two problems over the summer. He declined to say whether the incidences involved hazing and said

the students involved were not injured.

“Our interest is in protecting students, the safety of the students,” said Woods. “We have notified schools to be vigilant of our existing policy, which is zero tolerance for harassment of any kind.”

The bands’ busy season ended last week with the conclusion of football season, but the Atlanta-area bands will still be able to perform in the Martin Luther King Day parade in Stone Mountain in January, Woods said. No marching bands are scheduled to perform in a football bowl game.

Decatur resident Keith Sailor, who is the president of the marching band booster club at Southwest DeKalb High School, said his son, a sophomore, has never had any problems with hazing.

“I’m pretty comfortable with him participating in the band,” he said, declining further comment.

Experts say hazing has been found in students as young as 12, particularly when it involves a team activity like sports or band. Richard Sigal, a retired New Jersey sociology professor and expert on hazing, said schools need to examine whether it is happening.

“I think anytime you get a group of young people together, at some point, a tradition becomes established and that’s what perpetuates hazing,” Sigal said. “It’s up to coaches, it’s up to the principals, it’s up to the band leaders to stop it.”

In Florida, the state law enforcement agency sent letters to the head of the FAMU board and the head of the state university system, but they did not detail the potential fraud or misconduct, saying only that it involves school employees as well as “persons associated”, with the university.

The school’s president, James Ammons was hired more than four years ago as part of an effort to clear up past problems at the university. State audits found that some financial records could not be verified and there was questionable contracting. The college also could not account for millions of dollars in inventory.

Last week, the school’s board of trustees publicly reprimanded Ammons after a contentious debate on whether he should have been placed on leave.

Solomon Badger, chairman of the FAMU board, said the university would cooperate with the new investigation. “I didn’t know anything about the fraud and I still don’t,” Badger said.

Gary Fineout reported from Tallahassee.

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