http://www.orlandosentinel.com/features/os-famu-hazing-parents-complain-20120107,0,5466073.storyFor Years, Angry FAMU Parents Warned Ammons, Others Of HazingBy Denise-Marie Balona and Jeff Kunerth, Orlando Sentinel
8:31 p.m. EST, January 7, 2012
In the years leading up to the beating death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion on Nov. 19, parents begged university President James Ammons and other top officials to take a harder stand against hazing of marching band members.
Family members expressed their anger and fear in letters, emails, text messages and during meetings with officials after their children told them about a culture of abuse that started almost immediately after students began practicing with the famed Marching 100, according to interviews, student testimonials and public records obtained by the Orlando Sentinel.
Emerging from the complaints is a picture of an administration that was either unwilling or unable to stem a decades-long, entrenched tradition of hazing despite repeated injuries, lawsuits and the university's efforts to warn band members that the practice was illegal and could lead to suspensions, fines or arrests.
Students even signed anti-hazing pledges at the start of the school year. But those promises were often ignored on the practice field and in places outside the view of campus leaders.
Champion's death after the Florida Classic football game in Orlando confirmed parents' worst fears, and has sparked two criminal investigations and a national debate over how to stop hazing.
At FAMU, it's also fed a bitter battle of blame between Ammons and band director Julian White, whose attorney claims in a letter that FAMU administrators often met the problem with "reckless indifference" when White asked for help.
•Champion, who was slated to become the band's top drum major next school year, resisted hazing and encouraged other band members not to give in to it. His vocal opposition could be one reason he was so brutally attacked, Christopher Chestnut, the Champion family's attorney, told the Sentinel. Others interviewed by the Sentinel said the same thing. It still has not been determined, however, if Champion finally gave in to hazing on the day he was beaten to death, or if he was attacked against his will, Chestnut said.
•Some parents suspected band staff members of condoning hazing. A letter from one parent suggests band director White did not trust some of the people under him to help eliminate hazing because they would expose the identities of students who came forward. "Dr. White has had to be creative in his handling of these complaints as staff and other leaders were defiant of his authority," parent Berlinda Johnson wrote to Ammons last semester.
•Since 2004, White has suspended, terminated or put on probation at least 40 students from the band because of hazing allegations. That's the same year former band member Marcus Parker won $1.8 million in a lawsuit against members of the band after he was paddled so hard during a 2001 hazing that he suffered kidney damage. In 1998, the year White became band director, clarinet player Ivery Luckey was paddled about 300 times during a hazing ritual and was hospitalized with kidney failure. He sued the school and settled for $50,000.
•Twenty-six of the suspensions meted out by White occurred in the days after freshman clarinet player Bria Hunter was hazed so severely that she was hospitalized with a broken leg Nov. 7 — just 12 days before the Classic. Those suspensions involved students in the clarinet and trombone sections of the band.
Repeated attempts to reach Ammons, White and other FAMU officials through emails, phone calls and text messages went unanswered. Last week, however, the university's board of trustees voted to ask a committee of national experts to study anti-hazing initiatives and recommend changes for the university.
For this article, the Sentinel requested all correspondence about hazing between Ammons and White during the past year. The university's response indicates very little communication between the two men during that time. White did copy Ammons on suspension letters to students, however.
'Momma, I am scared!'
There's little doubt among some parents about where the blame rests for Champion's death. They insist that their complaints to White, Ammons and other administrators about hazing were not taken seriously enough.
Two years ago, parent Cheryl Walker of St. Louis told the Sentinel, she warned Ammons in an email about the dangers of hazing. In the email, she described the abuse that her son was experiencing at the hands of upperclassmen in the band."He said, 'Momma, I am scared! We have to run off the field after practice so the upperclassmen and alumni won't beat us up and one day we ran and accidently left one of the freshmen brothers on the field and they kicked him in his stomach,' " Walker wrote Ammons on Sept. 24, 2009, adding that her son would walk to meetings carrying a metal pipe to protect himself and had asked her to mail him Mace.
Her son ended up quitting the band and leaving FAMU. Walker said she met with Ammons and a representative from of the department of student affairs, who said the school was aware of the problem.
"They knew and they said they couldn't stop it," she told the Sentinel