MIAMI — Two decades ago, the now-ousted director of the Florida A&M band warned in a letter about the dangers of hazing among the famed “Marching 100” ensemble, saying “it would be very difficult for the university and the band should someone become killed or hurt.”
In the following years, however, hazing seemed to become a bigger — if not more public — problem. Police investigated several serious cases and students were arrested. Anti-hazing workshops were held. Dozens of band members were suspended. University officials and the marching band community was keenly aware of the persistent hazing, yet it continued and is believed to have played a role in the death this month of a 26-year-old drum major Robert Champion.
Champion’s death started a blame game of sorts, with the historically black college in Tallahassee firing its band director, Julian White, accusing him of “misconduct and/or incompetence.” In turn, White released more than 150 pages of documents showing that he warned the university for years about what was going on.
The chair of the Board of Governors, which oversees Florida’s public universities, wrote a letter to FAMU trustees Tuesday saying they would investigate whether the university administration took appropriate action to address White’s concerns.
A former band member told The Associated Press on Tuesday that White looked for ways to eradicate a culture of hazing that existed in many instrument sections of the band. White invited band members to anonymously report hazing and even had police come along on some away games, former drum major Timothy Barber told AP.
In 2001, when trumpeter Marcus Parker was paddled so severely that he ended up hospitalized with kidney damage, White had police escort the trumpet section off the field to be interrogated to show he would not tolerate hazing, Barber said.
About a dozen people pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and received probation in that case, though it’s not clear what actions, if any, the university took to punish them.
After the arrests, White approached Barber for help in getting rid of hazing. One area he focused on: A white wall in the band’s practice field where nicknames for the instrument sections were prominently displayed. Becoming a member of these groups — the clarinets were known as “The Clones” and the tubas were the “White Whales” — meant becoming part of a tradition and a band that has played Super Bowls, the Grammys and presidential inaugurations.
But some sections had their own violent initiation rituals. White bought buckets of white paint and asked Barber to cover up the section nicknames on the wall.
“Tim, we have to find a way to eradicate these subsections of the band,” Barber said White told him. “Cover the names so they see this is not something supported by the band staff.”
While White documented his efforts to stop the hazing, it’s possible he could’ve done more on the front lines, according to Richard Sigal, a retired sociology professor at County College of Morris in Randolph, N.J., who has studied hazing.
“Maybe he just had a problem that was beyond his ability to control it,” Sigal said. But in general, “If the person at the top issued a zero tolerance policy for hazing and oversaw what the people under him were doing, then there was no hazing.”
The details of Champion’s death are unclear. Authorities, the school and an attorney for his family said hazing played a role, but no one has been willing to shed any more light on what actually happened Nov. 19 after the football team played its rival Bethune-Cookman. Police have said only that Champion started vomiting and complained he couldn’t breathe before he collapsed on a band bus outside their hotel in Orlando.
The university has announced an independent review and Gov. Rick Scott has asked state investigators to join the sheriff’s department in their investigation.