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FAMU band leader drummed out in wake of death linked to hazing

By Tom Watkins, CNN
updated 5:45 AM EST, Thu November 24, 2011
Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion, 26, became ill and died Saturday night.
Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion, 26, became ill and died Saturday night.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • "Oh my God, I warned them," mother of band member says
  • But band officials "act like they don't know," she adds
  • She says that son's harassment was mental and verbal, that others were paddled
  • School officials did not immediately respond to calls

(CNN) -- The president of Florida A&M University moved Wednesday to dismiss the school's longtime band director in the wake of last weekend's hazing-linked death of a drum major in the school's famed marching band.

"The reason for this intended employment action is based upon your alleged misconduct and/or incompetence involving confirmed reports and allegations of hazing with the Department of Music and the 'Marching 100,'" President James H. Ammons said in a letter to Julian E. White.

The letter, which was marked "confidential," notified White that he was being dismissed effective December 22 and placed on administrative leave with pay effective immediately. The letter, which gave White 10 days to respond to Ammons, was provided to CNN by the university.

White, who had led the 420-member band since 1998, did not return a call from CNN.

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"Wow," said Felicia Fabre, the mother of another band member who, she said, had also been hazed. She said she had mixed emotions about the dismissal. "I believe that he did the best that he could," she told CNN in a telephone interview, adding that White had appeared sincere about trying to stop the hazing. "I think that it goes further than just him. He had people working under him that need to be held just as responsible."

But Berlinda Johnson, whose 18-year-old son is a band member whom she did not want to identify by name for fear of retribution, praised White. "Any time I alerted him to an issue, Dr. White was always responsive," she told CNN. She blamed section directors for setting the tone that allowed hazing to occur, despite White's efforts to halt it. "I do not think he had the support that he needed," she said.

Johnson accused a section leader of having hit her son in the back when practices first began last summer, and said that was just the beginning. "I reported maybe four to five incidents," she told CNN. "They need to interview each member of the band, no matter how long it takes. This is not a witch hunt, this is about getting things under control."

Her son loves band, she said. "but this year, freshman year, was not a fun year for him," she said.

Wednesday's dismissal comes four days after band members returned to their Orlando hotel following Saturday's game. There, Robert Champion, 26, "reportedly threw up in the parking lot and started complaining of not being able to breathe," the sheriff's office said in a release. Champion was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

"The investigation indicates that hazing was involved in the events that occurred prior to the 911 call for assistance," Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said Tuesday.

His death was not the first incident linked to hazing within the marching band, and school officials were well aware of the abuse, Fabre said.

"Oh my God, I warned them," she said, adding that she had met with band officials at the Tallahassee school after her son told her he too had been hazed. "I went to them and told them, 'God has blessed you with so much prestige and so much honor, and if you don't do anything, it will take just one incident to bring your world down.' "

Fabre's 20-year-old son, Marcus, plays alto saxophone in the band and was among a number of musicians who were being maltreated, she said. "My son told me he was mentally and verbally hazed; he was not physically beat, but that's because he doesn't allow that kind of thing.

"My son always stood up for himself -- he would say, last year when he was a freshman, they were picking on another freshman's sister and he had to stick up for her. These students are very disrespectful towards one another."

For some, the abuse went beyond verbal and psychological to include paddling, she said.

Fabre said she met with and e-mailed band staffers about her concerns over what she saw as pervasive hazing. "I addressed them to the leadership and they act like they don't know -- they say if students don't address it, then there's nothing they can do. If students aren't willing to stand up and say there's something going on, there's no one they can prosecute."

Marcus Fabre declined to speak to CNN, his mother said. "He's just not ready to talk," she said. "He's just not ready to go to that next level yet."

She forwarded to CNN a copy of an e-mail she sent in August to Ralph Turner, dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, and band director White, in which she described an incident one of her son's classmates said he had seen. "He ... witnessed the same section leader ... choke the same student and held his neck up in this choking manner. This was done in a remote corner where he thought that he could not be seen by others. I could go on with horror stories, but I won't. Students do not report these acts because they are in fear of being ostracized."

"I have spoken to Dr. White on many occasions -- he listened and said it would be addressed," Fabre wrote. Though band members must sign an anti-hazing agreement, the practice continues, Fabre said. "It's not the band staff that does it, it's the section leaders, upperclassmen, the students that they've chosen to be in leadership," she said.

Calls to the school's spokeswoman, Sharon Saunders and to Turner were not immediately returned.

On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter to Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey asking the department to join the investigation "to assure that the circumstances leading to Mr. Champion's death become fully known, and that if there are individuals directly or indirectly responsible for this death, they are appropriately brought to justice and held accountable."

Authorities have not said what happened to Champion. A spokeswoman for the Orange County Medical Examiner's Office said Wednesday that the autopsy had not been completed and that no cause of death was available.

Under Florida law, any death that occurs as the result of hazing is a third-degree felony.

After the incident, President Ammons suspended band performances and said he will convoke a task force "to determine if there are any unauthorized and questionable activities associated with the culture of the Marching 100."

"The purpose of this review is not to establish culpability of individual band members in this particular case, but rather to determine whether there are patterns of behavior by the band -- or members of it -- that should be addressed at the institutional level," he said.

Ammons acknowledged that at least 30 band members were let go this semester because of possible involvement in hazing.

But that wasn't enough, according to Fabre. "My prayer is there will be no cover-up," she said. "They need to get the mess out of their band and start new."

She likened the hazing incidents to gang initiations and said they were carried out in secret. "Not like street thugs, but here, if you want to be accepted, then you got to go through it."

Fabre said the incidents were "like a generational curse that needs to be broken" and held out hope that Champion's death would result in the end of hazing. "Someone has got to break the cycle," she said.

The Marching 100's motto lays out "qualities to live by," including "highest quality of character" and "dedication to service."

In 2009, the band represented Florida in the parade for President Barack Obama's inauguration.

CNN's Vivian Kuo contributed to this report.

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