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Death of FAMU Band Member Puts Other Universities on Notice

The death of a Florida A & M University (FAMU) band member after a suspected band hazing incident earlier this month is having widespread impact across the higher education landscape.

With FAMU’s internationally known “Marching 100” band suspended for an indefinite period and its image tarnished, presidents, student life officials and band directors at many schools say they are taking new steps to reinforce and strengthen their anti-hazing policies. Hazing on college campuses is a decades-old physical discipline encounter where the rules are set by those administering initiation rites into campus organizations. Hazing has been the target of repeated discipline efforts over the years that have been undermined by a code of silence among participants.

In Mississippi, Jackson State University, which suspended 23 member of its 200-plus “Sonic Boom of the South” marching band in 2009, decided this week to adopt a “zero tolerance” policy regarding hazing, toughening an anti-hazing policy it developed after the 2009 incidents. North Carolina Central University is establishing a chancellor-level task force with orders to review all anti-hazing policies of the school and make recommendations for changes by February 2012.

“We need to determine whether those guidelines and the dangers of hazing that they are intended to address are clearly understood by our student groups,” North Carolina Central Chancellor Charlie Nelms says in a memo to task force members. “I am asking the task force to focus on all student groups, not just the band, and to provide me with its assessment no later than Feb. 1, 2012,” Nelms writes. “This review should include student organizations such as fraternities, sororities and athletic teams, etc.”

In Nashville, where Tennessee State University’s nationally recognized  “Aristocrat of Bands” is among those preparing for the Honda Battle of the Bands, school and band officials say they have given a strong reminder to the 200-plus band members that “hazing won’t be tolerated or permitted,” says school spokesman Rick DelaHaya.  

The anti-hazing steps being taken by these and other schools came as final arrangements were being made for a scheduled funeral on Wednesday for 26-year-old Robert Champion, the  FAMU clarinetist and drum major who died Nov. 19 after a suspected hazing incident. The death and the circumstances surrounding it are being investigated by the Sheriff’s Office of Orange County, Fla., and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Recently fired FAMU band director Julian White, who had suspended more than 20 students earlier this month over their involvement in hazing activities, is scheduled to speak at the funeral. White, a former member and drum major in the band when he was a student, has retained a lawyer to help get his job back. The Champion family also has said it plans to sue the school over Robert Champion’s death.

While Florida A & M’s troubles directly related to Champion’s death are expected to mount in the coming weeks, observers say the fallout from the incident, thought to be the first hazing-related death of a band member at a historically Black college, could be widespread.

Raymond Pierce, dean of the School of Law at North Carolina Central, says any school facing such a tragic development should also be concerned about its impact on recruitment and fundraising.

“I’m quite sure if you had heard of the incident, it might cause you to have a higher degree of scrutiny for any college that has a band program,” says Pierce, a former director of the Office for Civil Rights at the Department of Education. The same goes for potential donors — from alumni to foundations — Pierce says, noting donors don’t want to be associated with schools that have a tarnished record.

Pierce says while the FAMU situation involves the tragic death of a student, the fallout is, in many respects, the same as that being experienced by Penn State University and Syracuse University, the law school dean’s alma mater, in connection to their athletic programs.

For sure, recovery from such situations does not come quickly or easily, says Dr. Marcus Chanay, the vice president for student life at Jackson State University.

“It’s (hazing) a culture, and it takes time to change,” says Chanay. “And, you have to have a staff that’s on top of everything. Two thousand nine was really a major embarrassment for the university, especially the band,” he says, having some sense of what FAMU is going through.

Part of changing that culture meant banning and no longer recognizing band “sections,” subgroups within the school band that had their own hazing rites. FAMU has similar subgroups within its band. Jackson State’s post-2009 plan also involved establishing a “Red Flag” system by which students can secretly report alleged hazing incidents.

The school routinely holds workshops about school hazing policies and how criminal laws treat hazing.

“We’ve been really trying to deal with this,” says Chanay.

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