FAMU's Hazing Scandal: What Now?

Illustration for article titled FAMU's Hazing Scandal: What Now?

After the vigils for Robert Champion, after the marches, after the homicide investigation and after the headlines, the campus of Florida A&M University will have to move forward.


Champion, a 26-year-old drum major for FAMU's celebrated Marching 100 band, died on Nov. 19 from what authorities say was hazing.

Since then, three other members of the band have been arrested in connection with a hazing incident that occurred three weeks before Champion's death and resulted in a female student's leg being broken. Law enforcement has also opened an investigation into FAMU's finances pertaining to the band's travel.

On Dec. 16 a report was released that confirmed an investigation into the possible molestation of an 8-year-old on the school's campus by an 18-year-old. And about a month after he collapsed on an Orlando, Fla., band trip, Champion's death was ruled a homicide. It has been hard to keep track of the investigations and scandals surrounding FAMU, the nation's largest HBCU, over the past four weeks.

Two days after rejecting a recommendation by Florida Gov. Rick Scott to suspend FAMU President James Ammons while the series of investigations are conducted, the chair of the university's board of trustees spoke with The Root about how the school can get a grip on the issue of hazing.

Solomon Badger, who stressed that he was speaking for himself and not the entire board, said he would like to see a campuswide conference or discussion on the impact of hazing that involves sociologists and psychologists. He also said he would like to see something larger involving all of Florida's universities.

"It's a start," he said. "And just imagine what it could be if you had the minds of academia on 11 state universities just congregating around that same question." Badger said that college students should address hazing with high school students.


"Just like we bring that van of students around for recruiting, well, do the same thing and go around and say we're the anti-hazing people," Badger said. In addition, he wants to discuss the possibility of a credit-earning course that is focused on hazing or that would require students to participate in anti-hazing initiatives. As soon as investigations are over, he said, he will begin seriously discussing remedies for the problem.

Students at FAMU already attend anti-hazing meetings, sign anti-hazing pledges and have watched classmates go to jail. What more can be done to get them to stop hazing one another?


"I don't know if anyone has the answer to that question," said James Bland, a 26-year-old Los Angeles-based actor who graduated from FAMU in 2008. "The thing that I do know is that it has to start with the students. It has to start on the ground."

An Attack on FAMU?

Bland helped launch the website WeAreFAMUNITED.com earlier this month to give FAMU alumni a place to share positive stories about the school. Bland said that the media attention given to FAMU after Champion's death has been disproportionate compared with the attention paid to other schools where hazing deaths have occurred.


Just this year, Cornell University student George Desdunes died after going through a hazing ritual in which he had to drink alcohol if he gave incorrect answers to questions. Desdunes was found unconscious in Sigma Alpha Epsilon's house with a 0.35 percent blood alcohol level.

"I never heard about it until I started doing research," Bland said. "It almost feels like an attack on a black institution."


U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown (D-Jacksonville) graduated from FAMU and agrees with Bland. "I didn't see anything happen when it happened to other schools in Florida or around the nation," she said. "Why is it that you're going to have the governor weighing in? Everybody doesn't want Florida A&M to be as successful as we do."

Brown sent Scott a letter accusing him of singling out FAMU, when there have been other hazing incidents at larger white schools in the state. In November 2001, University of Miami student Chad Meredith drowned when he was forced to swim in a lake after drinking alcohol.


Scott has said that he wasn't singling out the school and that Ammons' suspension would have made it clear that the investigations were aboveboard.

"It's Another Thing for the '100' "

Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College and author of Black Greek 101: The Culture, Customs, and Challenges of Black Fraternities and Sororities, said that he doesn't think the focus on FAMU is because it's a black school; rather, it's because Champion was in the lauded band.


"When people thing about hazing, they don't typically think about a marching band," he said. He cited the 2009 death of Prairie View A&M University student Donnie Wade, which received a fraction of the attention that Champion's death has received, as an example of why the focus on FAMU is not about race. "He's just as dead, but we didn't have the same kind of outcry about his death," Kimbrough said.

Bernard Kinsey played French horn in the Marching 100 for four years in 1960s, when the band's drum major was Julian White, its current director. Kinsey is one of the band's and university's biggest financial supporters. The former vice president for Xerox said he was never mistreated back in the day.


"When I was in the band, I never was beaten," Kinsey said. "They would make us stand for eight hours on the bus as we were going to Atlanta, I had to blow out an electric lightbulb, I had to count grass or I had to carry the upperclassmen's instruments or shine their shoes. But no one ever laid a hand on me."

Hearing the news about Champion was devastating, he said: "I couldn't believe it; it's like losing a son or something."


Kinsey said that the attributes that make the band special have been overshadowed in the past month. "It's not because of hazing," he said. "It's because of the character leadership, academics, musicianship and precision marching — that's what people come from all over the world to see."

Watching band members get prosecuted will have more of an effect on FAMU students' perception of hazing than seeing two members of Kappa Alpha Psi go to prison for hazing in 2007. "It's one thing for the Kappas," Kinsey said. "It's another thing for the '100.' "


Making It Stop

Kimbrough has challenged all of those students, band members and alumni who are professing their love for FAMU to step up and do more to protect their school from costly lawsuits and investigations by exposing hazing when they see it.


He said that he suppresses hazing at Philander Smith by having stiff penalties. "People haze because they don't feel like the risk is greater than the reward, so I think we have to continue to increase the risk," he said. "I'm talking about expulsions; the time for suspensions is done."

Kimbrough, who doubts that any current FAMU students even know the names of the two Kappas who went to prison for hazing four years ago, said that colleges have to remind students repeatedly throughout the school year of the penalties and consequences of hazing.


"I'm sending your behind home. It's just straight expulsion. I'm not having a hearing" is what Kimbrough tells his 730-student body.

FAMU graduate Bland said that professionals need to be brought into the conversation to dig into the minds of students who haze. If students at HBCUs are taught more about their history and how African Americans were beaten by whites, he argued, students might reconsider some of their pledging practices.


When asked if he experienced hazing, Bland, a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, said that some may call his experience hazing, but he doesn't see it that way: "I would say I was initiated."

The open dialogue needed to address hazing can be tricky. Hazing is done in secret, and people rarely want to address their own experiences. Students often look at older members of the organizations they want to be a part of as hypocrites for telling them not to haze, when the older members participated in hazing themselves.


"Well, it's easy," said FAMU board of trustees Chair Badger, a member of Kappa Alpha Psi. "I'm telling you so you won't be as stupid as I was. Yes, I did it. And it was dumb on my part to do that."

Perhaps this time, students will finally get the message. Bland said that he wants something good to come from the tragedy at his alma mater. "My hope, my prayer, is that FAMU is the catalyst to a changed culture," he said, "and hopefully people will look at this situation and they'll think twice before they participate in these actions."


Topher Sanders is a newspaper reporter living in Jacksonville, Fla., with his wife and son. You can follow his musings on life, sports and music on Twitter