TALLAHASSEE — FAMU on Thursday lifted the suspension of its famed marching band, which had been prohibited from performing since the hazing death of drum major Robert Champion after the Florida Classic football game in Orlando in 2011.
It was not immediately clear when the Marching 100 would be allowed to perform at public events and football games such as the Classic, which pits FAMU against Bethune-Cookman University .
Interim President Larry Robinson made the announcement at a news conference, where he again went over the numerous changes Florida A&M University has made in efforts to fight hazing over the last year and a half.
The school has revised its anti-hazing policy, created a website to make it easy for students to report hazing and hired a special assistant whose primary job is monitoring and preventing hazing on campus. Last month, FAMU announced it had selected a new band director.
Robinson has repeatedly said he would lift the band's suspension when he thought conditions were right.
"When considering all of the measures we have put in place, I believe this constitutes us having the right conditions," Robinson said in a prepared statement. "Our newly appointed director of marching and pep bands, Dr. Sylvester Young, will decide when the band is ready for public performances."
Young and his staff are looking at the football schedule and other potential performance events to determine when the ensemble will take the field, Robinson told the Sentinel.
He also said the group likely will be much smaller. Young, who will be rebuilding the band this summer, explained that it will be tougher to join because of new requirements, including a minimum grade-point average of 2.0.
Young also said he needs to assess the quality of the band once students begin working together. Although some have kept their skills sharp by practicing, it is too soon to say whether the entire group will be as good as bands of the past.
"We will not put the band in the public unless it's at that level or even better," Young said.
Chuck Lewis, president of the Orlando chapter of the FAMU National Alumni Association, will be eagerly awaiting news of the band's first performance. He said he was thrilled to learn about the group's reinstatement, feelings shared among many alumni, fans, students and others who celebrated via Twitter and other social media.
"I'm very excited about it. I'm sure most Rattlers are," Lewis said.
Champion's mother, Pamela Champion, however, said the university's decision seemed rushed. She pointed out that FAMU still wrestles with hazing issues.
Just last week, school administrators suspended two sororities because of hazing. The campus chapter of Delta Sigma Theta will be suspended through June 2016 and the local chapter of Gamma Sigma Sigma will be suspended until the end of June 2014, according to the university.
Pamela Champion also wondered whether financial reasons were behind the band's reinstatement and questioned whether new policies will help stamp out hazing.
"Even though you say you have all these things in place and 'We feel we're ready,' you have no proof this is going to work," she said in a telephone interview Thursday afternoon.
The chancellor of the State University System, Frank Brogan, said he knows that reinstating the band is a decision that FAMU "takes seriously." He referred to the various changes implemented at the school.
"We look to the university to continually monitor the effectiveness of these efforts," said Brogan, who, along with Gov. Rick Scott, spoke out against the band's return in May 2012.
On Thursday, Scott did not criticize the university's decision. He did express support for the Champion family. "Governor Scott's thoughts and prayers remain with Robert Champion's family for their loss," said John Tupps, a spokesman for the governor. "Florida A&M University has an obligation to protect their students from incidents like the Robert Champion tragedy."
Over the past year and a half, many had wondered when the band would be allowed to perform again. It has been plagued by controversy and additional hazing allegations since Nov. 19, 2011, when Champion was beaten aboard a parked charter bus.
Fifteen people have been charged in his death. Ten — including two drum majors — are awaiting trial on charges of manslaughter and felony hazing.
Five people — including two other drum majors — have already reached plea deals with prosecutors and most were sentenced to probation and community service.
Champion's parents have sued the university over his death.
The band has long been a source of pride for Florida's only public, historically black university. It also has played a key role in fundraising and student recruitment.
The hazing scandal and the suspension of the band hurt the school, which is located in Tallahassee.
The crowd at last year's Florida Classic — a major fundraiser held annually at the Florida Citrus Bowl — was half the size it usually is.
In December, hazing and other problems prompted the school's accrediting agency to place it on a year of probation.
State Rep. Alan Williams said Thursday marked "a turning point" for FAMU and the Marching 100.
Williams, a FAMU graduate, praised the university's work to eradicate hazing and its decision to lift the band's suspension.
"I know that the entire community as well as fans and supporters of the Marching 100 throughout the world, looks forward to the day that these world class musicians will be back on the field showcasing their unique and astonishing marching maneuvers," he said in a prepared statement.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun