TALLAHASSEE Fla. – Florida A&M University’s Board of Trustees is scheduled to meet Monday to consider Gov. Rick Scott’s request that President James Ammons be suspended while authorities continue to investigate the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion.
The meeting comes three days after the state medical examiner ruled Champion’s death a homicide. Officials say he was beaten so severely that he bled internally and went into shock. He died within an hour.
In the wake of Champion’s death, Ammons and other university leaders have been criticized for not doing enough to stop a culture of hazing within the university’s famed “Marching 100” band. Band director Julian White has been placed on temporary leave, and the board voted recently to reprimand Ammons publicly.
But students have largely stood by both leaders. Students protested outside the governor’s mansion on Thursday to show support for Ammons, and the leader of the national alumni association was expected to speak Sunday protesting Scott’s involvement and recommending Ammons not be suspended.
“This is under investigation,” Tommy Mitchell said. “How do you make a determination before all the evidence is in?”
Champion, 26, died Nov. 19 after falling unconscious on a bus outside an Orlando hotel after the school’s football team lost to rival Bethune-Cookman. Witnesses told emergency dispatchers that he had been vomiting.
The medical examiner’s office in Orlando found that Champion had bruises to his chest, arms, shoulder and back and internal bleeding. State and local authorities are continuing to investigate the death. No charges have been filed.
Champion’s death shed light on years of hazing that has plagued the band and left several students injured. In 1998, Ivery Luckey, a clarinet player from Ocala, Fla., was hospitalized with kidney damage after being paddled as part of an initiation to become a member of a group known as “The Clones.” Three years later, band member Marcus Parker was also hospitalized with kidney damage after being paddled.
Ammons, a FAMU alumni, became president in 2007, several years after both of those incidents had occurred. He came on at a time when the university was under considerable distress; there had been four presidents within the previous six years, and an audit in 2007 uncovered 35 findings, including $4.5 million in unaccounted sports tickets and lost equipment. The university was placed under probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Under Ammons’ leadership, the university’s accreditation was restored and its finances improved. An audit done two years later found the university still needed to do a better job paying bills on time and keeping a closer eye on employee use of state-owned cell phones, but those problems paled in comparison to the previous report.
“He brought us through that,” Mitchell said. “There’s no reason for us to believe he can’t bring us through this.”
But hazing was a continuing problem at the university. White has provided letters of suspension issued to dozens of band members for hazing, including many of which Ammons was reportedly provided a copy.
Less than two weeks before Champion’s death, band member Bria Hunter was hospitalized with a broken leg and blood clots in what authorities say was another act of hazing. Three band members have been charged in the beating.
And, two days before Champion died, White sent a letter to alumni, urging them not to “return and perpetuate the myth of various sectional names.”
“You should not return and look down on people who follow university regulations by not participating in sub-organizations,” White wrote. “This is extremely important and I call on all alumni to assist the band and myself in eradicating all vestiges of hazing in the Marching ‘100’ band.”
Ammons suspended the band after Champion’s death, dismissed White and expelled four students in connection with the incident. White was later placed on temporary leave and the students were allowed to attend class after state authorities urged the university not to take disciplinary action before the investigation was completed.
Ammons has said he did not receive letters warning of band hazing until after Champion’s death and has pledged to cooperate with the investigation. He says his administration has acted appropriately and will abide by whatever decision the board reaches.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges has warned that Scott’s push to suspend Ammons could affect the school’s accreditation because of “undue influence” on the board from outside.
Mitchell said FAMU and its president shouldn’t be singled out or disciplined more severely than other universities.
“Hazing is a national problem,” he said. “Has any other president been suspended before of hazing?”
In a letter to Scott, Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., said the incident needs to be put in perspective.
“Certainly, issues relating to hazing and bullying are not limited to FAMU or to Black colleges but to schools nationwide and need to be addressed,” Brown wrote. “Yet focusing excessively on one incident at just one school is not the answer or the proper path toward correcting this problem.”