As it faces a possible lawsuit over the alleged hazing death of one of its Marching 100 band members, Florida A&M University has formed an independent, anti-hazing committee charged with creating a template whose potential uses extend beyond FAMU into a collegiate world where hazing is pervasive, committee members said.
"Our job is to come up with recommendations for how FAMU can, hopefully, create a campus culture that is hazing-free. We also hope those recommendations can be used by other campuses," said committee member Elizabeth Allan, co-director of the University of Maine's National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention.
The university created the committee after the death of drum major Robert Champion, 26, in November 2011. A medical examiner's report said that Champion died because of "hemorrhagic shock due to soft tissue hemorrhage due to blunt force trauma sustained during a hazing incident." His death has been ruled a homicide. No one has been charged in Champion's death, which is being investigated by state and local law-enforcement officials.
Hazing in View: College Students at Risk (pdf) — a continuing survey of more than 11,000 collegians on 53 campuses — showed, in its initial findings, released in March 2008, that 55 percent of students in organized clubs and activities had been hazed through physical assault, forced alcohol abuse, sleep deprivation or other means. None of the 53 institutions — the researchers agreed not to publish their names in exchange for access to students — was a historically black college or university, but black organizations are represented in the survey, Allan said.
Fraternities, sororities and sports teams are the most likely to haze, but "the data show that hazing even occurs in honor societies, in academic clubs and in intramural sports," Allan said.
For their part, students often justify hazing, focusing on its presumed goal of organizational unity and not on its abuses, said Allan, who convenes a dialogue about hazing and hazing prevention at stophazing.org.
FAMU is trusting that the committee's recommendations will change behavior and attitudes, administrators said.
"Everyone can agree that this issue has infected the university," said Belinda Shannon, the FAMU trustee who oversaw the launch of the independent anti-hazing panel. "Anyone who has any familiarity with the issue of hazing recognizes that [it's] been around for years and years and years … that it brings its own complexities and is a byproduct of the society in which we live."
She continued: "The board of trustees has been so focused on addressing … what we need to do to help the university ensure the safety of all students that we're not [dwelling on outside] scrutiny" that FAMU has been under.
That scrutiny includes a query from the Florida chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union over whether FAMU's recent, temporary ban on the Marching 100 summer camp and other student organizations is constitutional. And it includes the prospect of a lawsuit against FAMU by Champion's parents, who filed one on Feb. 13 against owners of the bus company whose vehicle was where Champion was allegedly battered to death.
"Unless FAMU comes to the settlement table, we'll absolutely amend that complaint and sue the school," said Chris Chestnut, the Gainesville, Fla., attorney hired by Robert and Pamela Champion, who live near Atlanta.
The lawsuit against Fabulous Coach Lines claims that, for several years, the company was complicit in the hazing ritual of FAMU's band — that the driver of the bus transporting the Marching 100 last November blocked entry and exits to the vehicle while Champion was beaten and forced him back onto the bus after he got off to vomit. "They're a significant factor … with one of their agents participating in this," said Chestnut, adding that this and any future lawsuit is about far more than money.
Champion's parents want to attack hazing and have launched their own anti-hazing initiative, Chestnut said. "This has been really tough for them, and it's tough because they can't get answers," Chestnut said. "They know their son is dead, but they don't even know what led to it."
That tragedy notwithstanding, the Florida ACLU is concerned that FAMU's ban on student organizations "applies to everyone, people who may not be connected to that action whatsoever," said ACLU spokesman Derek Newton. It has requested documents detailing how FAMU decided to impose that temporary ban.
"We sent a letter to the president of the university expressing some concerns that this action may restrict the rights of students to freely associate and assemble," Newton said. "We outline clearly that hazing is a problem and that the university is certainly right to take steps to deal with it, address it specifically and administer consequences."
In a written response to The Root, FAMU President James Ammons said that the temporary ban "was not intended to prevent students from associating with one another or attending meetings or gathering. It simply suspended the intake process … to ensure that no hazing took place. The action was taken because FAMU is very serious about protecting the health, safety and well-being of all students."
Other members of the FAMU anti-hazing committee are Mary Madden, Allan's University of Maine teaching colleague and co-director of the hazing research-and-prevention project; Tallahassee-born Florida State University psychologist and author-activist Na'im Akbar, also a prominent member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity; former U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Craig Robinson; Michael Bowie, executive director of the Florida Fund for Minority Teachers and a former national president of the National Pan-Hellenic Council of black Greek organizations; former U.S. Navy Vice Adm. David Brewer, also a former Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent; and David Starnes, West Carolina University band director and music professor.
Katti Gray is a Brooklyn, N.Y.-based freelance writer.