By Arelis R. Hernández, Orlando Sentinel
11:27 PM EST, November 22, 2011
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."
Johnson said she thinks White has tried hard to stop the hazing behavior, but other leaders in the band continue to participate.
FAMU parent Julie Lopez said her son, a band member, received a call from another student saying Champion was "crossing bus C" when he died.
She asked her son to describe the "rite of passage," which involves beating a new section member who is walking from the back to the front of a bus. To earn the respect and acceptance of his fellow drum majors, Champion may have endured this pummeling, all three parents who contacted the Sentinel said.
"Everyone was talking about it," Lopez said. "It was a planned event."
It is still unclear what type of hazing incident took place aboard the charter bus, and Demings would not answer questions at the news conference Tuesday.
Walter Kimbrough, an expert on hazing, said the prestige of the FAMU band — the drum-major position is particularly coveted — could entice students to submit to abuse.
"It's the most famous [college] band in the world, and so you can create rituals and customs in that band because people want to belong," said Kimbrough, president of the historically black Philander Smith University in Little Rock, Ark.
The problem, he said, is not confined to bands.
In 2005, Florida became one of the few states to make hazing a felony. The Chad Meredith law is named after a University of Miami student who drowned in 2001 after drinking during a fraternity hazing.
"It's a higher-education problem," Kimbrough said. "It just manifests in different ways."
Ocoee High band director and 1997 FAMU grad Bernard Hendricks called the recent incident "very sad, very shocking." And the possibility that the death was "band-related" is more of a shock, he said.
Hendricks marched in the band in the 1990s, and said he recalled some hazing but nothing physical.
"It was a lot more verbal and mental," he said.
Hendricks said if he made a mistake on the field, he "expected" someone to call him out.
Now that's he's a band director, Hendricks said he watches for hazing in his own classroom.
"As a teacher, I try to make sure that it doesn't creep into what I do."
On Tuesday, Bethune-Cookman University released a statement saying its president, Trudie Kibbe Reed, and the entire B-CU family offered its "sincerest condolences" to FAMU "and the family of drum major, Mr. Robert Champion, for their tragic loss."
In his remarks Tuesday, FAMU's Ammons addressed rumors that Champion was hazed, saying that the school was cooperating fully with the sheriff's investigation.
"Hazing is illegal," Ammons said, adding that the school is dealing with the issue and vowing to make sure "we end this practice."
The Tallahassee school has received seven reports of hazing in the past decade, officials said. Two of those cases resulted in the arrests of three people, according to university spokeswoman Sharon Saunders. The other cases were not prosecuted or the victims refused to cooperate, she said.
Saunders said the school has an anti-hazing policy, and band director White said he has dismissed more than two dozen band members recently because of possible hazing incidents.
Ammons said band performances would be halted "out of respect" for Champion's family.
Former FAMU marching-band member Marcus Parker won a $1.8 million verdict against members of the band in 2004, stemming from an incident in 2001, according to the Florida Times-Union newspaper in Jacksonville.
The newspaper reported that Parker was beaten with paddling boards so badly during a Marching 100 initiation that one of his kidneys shut down temporarily. Five men were held liable for his injuries.
Staff writers Jon Busdeker, Susan Jacobson and Jeff Weiner contributed to this report. email@example.com or 407-883-7796.
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