On the same day Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings announced that hazing was involved in the death of a FAMU drum major, the Orlando Sentinel learned that several parents have been complaining for months about verbal and physical abuse within the school's prestigious marching band.
Robert Champion collapsed aboard a parked charter bus in front of the Rosen Plaza hotel Saturday night after the Florida Classic football game in which the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University and Bethune-Cookman University marching bands performed during halftime.
He was pronounced dead a short time later at Dr. P. Phillips Hospital. The 26-year-old was a first-year drum major poised to become the top student in the band next year.
On Tuesday, the parents of three members of the FAMU "Marching 100" band told the Sentinel that they have implored university officials for months to end the verbal and physical abuse that one parent characterized as "a well-kept secret."
Felicia Fabre, whose son is a sophomore in the band, said she received a text message Saturday night saying a drum major had been killed after a hazing incident.
Her first thought was, "Oh, my God, I told them that this was going to happen," Fabre said. She shared with the Sentinel a series of emails, beginning in August, that outlined some of the abusive behavior her son had witnessed and been subjected to by "section leaders" in the band.
"These practice[s] MUST STOP and they will not until someone stands up and some changes are made," Fabre wrote in an email to band director Julian White and Ralph Turner, listed on the website as the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences. "I feel because of love, calling and duty I must not only speak up for my son, but also for the students who are being belittled and mistreated and feel they do not have a voice."
Demings' news conference came just hours after FAMU officials announced all band performances would be suspended while the university investigates the circumstances of Champion's death amid allegations of hazing within the school's famed marching band.
"Any death that occurs as a result of hazing is a third-degree felony," Demings said.
FAMU President Dr. James Ammons said the university is organizing an independent task force to "determine if there are patterns of inappropriate behavior within the culture" of the 375-member band.
Champion's family could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
Demings, in his remarks Tuesday, said his investigation "indicates that hazing was involved in the events that occurred prior to the 911 call for assistance.
"Anyone who participates in such events can be criminally charged," he said, adding that results of an autopsy performed Monday were inconclusive. More medical tests will be performed.
Berlinda Johnson, whose son is a freshman and in the band, said she was in Orlando for the game and heard late Saturday that Champion had died. She told the Sentinel there were rumors that Champion had been beaten in the moments before he collapsed.
"Hazing has been ongoing throughout the year," she said. "This started the very first week of band camp."
In September, Johnson sent an email to band director White, which began, "Without my son's consent, I am sending you this e-mail…."
"Students are being terrorized and humiliated daily," she wrote. She gave examples: Her son had been "punched in the back while he was running around track" by a freshman section leader.
"This is now an official complaint," she wrote. "Please stop him and warn him that this verbal and physical abuse is serious business."