- "That was his life," mother says of the victim's band work
- Robert Champion, a 26-year-old drum major, became ill and died after a game
- At least 30 band members were let go this semester because of alleged hazing
- "We are concerned about the culture of cover-up," family lawyer says
A lawyer for the family of Robert Champion, a Florida university drum major who died this month in what officials have called a hazing-related death, said Monday he will sue the school.
"We are intending to file a lawsuit to get answers" about hazing at Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University, lawyer Chris Chestnut told reporters. "We are concerned about the culture of cover-up, that hazing has been covered up at the Band FAMU for generations. So, it's time now that we expose the truth, eradicate this culture and come up with creative remedies on how to continue the excellence of FAMU's band, but without hazing."
Chestnut said he was not at liberty to discuss the facts of the case and noted that the medical examiner has not issued a report on the cause of death of the 26-year-old musician. But, he added, the facts that have emerged to date "point to the fact that hazing was a cause of Robert Champion's death, and it was under FAMU's watch."
He said he could not address the scope of the lawsuit but added, "I can tell you that FAMU will be named in it."
Chestnut described hazing at the school as a don't ask, don't tell culture. "The family's message today is: Please, tell."
Because FAMU is a state institution, it is protected by sovereign immunity, which means that Chestnut must file a notice of intention to sue as a prerequisite to the suit, the lawyer said. "After a six-month window, we will file a lawsuit," he added.
"He loved the band -- so much, I always called him Mr. Band," Champion's mother, Pam Champion, told reporters of her son. "That was his life."
She added that she was in suburban Atlanta, where the family lives, when a phone call informed her of her son's death. The call came shortly after her son had called to say he was coming home for Thanksgiving. "I thought it was some kind of mean joke. ... Maybe it's the wrong kid, maybe it's somebody else."
"They had no idea of anticipating that he'd be coming to Willie Watkins' Funeral Home when he came back to Atlanta," Chestnut said. "That's not what you send your kid to college for."
"It needs to stop," Pam Champion said. "No one wants to hear on a phone call that your son collapsed and died."
Champion became ill at an Orlando hotel after a game on November 20. He reportedly threw up in the parking lot and started complaining of not being able to breathe, authorities said.
Champion was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings told CNN last week that hazing was involved but added that authorities were trying to determine an official cause of death. Under Florida law, any death that occurs as the result of hazing is a third-degree felony.
After the death, FAMU President James H. Ammons suspended all band performances and said he will convene a task force "to determine if there are any unauthorized and questionable activities associated with the culture of the Marching 100."
In addition, FAMU moved to fire longtime band director Julian E. White. White had led the 420-member band since 1998 and has hired an attorney to fight for his job.
"We believe that he was not treated with the respect that was due," Tallahassee attorney Chuck Hobbs said. He described as "ludicrous" the university's assertion that White did not do what he could do to address hazing.
White, who said he will speak Wednesday at Champion's funeral, said he had told the victim's parents about their son's death. "That was extremely difficult for me," he said. "I wish that this could have been avoided. I took the necessary steps that this tragedy could have been avoided."
He said he had ordered the suspension of 26 band members two weeks before Champion's death. "I thought that that would really be the end of these kinds of things," he said, adding that his move brought criticism from some band members and parents who asked him whether the band would be able to perform adequately without 19 trombone players and others. "My comment was: 'It doesn't matter,' " he said. "I am not going to sacrifice the performance for the principle."
White added that he wished the administration had suspended from the school the students allegedly involved in hazing. "If some strong actions had been taken, then Robert Champion may well be alive now, and we may not be having this gathering," he said.
White added that he sent memoranda in 1989 and in the 2000s about hazing's presence on campus, not just among band members. "It's no secret," he said. "It's just a culture -- as much as I regret it -- that kids nowadays engage in."
Every year, he offers hazing workshops, and anytime a band member has been suspended for hazing, White sends a note to the school president, the vice president of student affairs, the chief of police and the band staff. "I probably have more than 100," he said. "I don't know how many."
He added, "I feel very comfortable that I did everything that I could to eradicate hazing. I coined the phrase, 'Zero tolerance for hazing in the Florida A&M U band.' "
Asked whether he believes he is being made a scapegoat, White said, "Yes, I do." He said he had tried his best to make the administration aware of the problems. "How would I be negligent in reporting the activities when I did report them?" he asked.
David Frank, a Tallahassee lawyer who represented another hazing victim, said it was not clear whether it was White or others who were at fault.
"He's a legend over there," he said. "He walks in a room, people listen. Maybe he did. Maybe it's the rest of the system over there that fell apart."
Frank filed a suit against the school on behalf of a band trumpeter, Marcus W. Parker, who was beaten in 2001. Frank won the case for undisclosed damages (FAMU's sovereign immunity caps its liability for a negligence action at $100,000) and won another case against those who beat his client for $1.8 million, he told CNN in a telephone interview.
Frank described the hazing as part of a deep tradition with the band, where each section acts like a fraternity. "The trumpet section was the Screaming Eagles," Frank said. "The school says you don't have to be a member of this fraternity. That's just horse s***. You couldn't survive as a trumpeter if you were not a member of the Screaming Eagles."
The beatings meted out were carried out with paddles, but that doesn't fully describe what happens, he said. "Paddling is just the wrong word for it. It's vicious beating. I think one guy got hit over 100 times. And this is a solid, wood paddle. This isn't some Wiffle bat. This is something that would kill you."
In Parker's case, he was hit 30 times in his buttocks -- "so hard they put him into renal failure," Frank said. "His kidneys stopped working and he had to go into the emergency room. He almost died."
Parker spent at least five days in critical condition, endured several surgeries and quit school, the lawyer said. The former student is now living in Jacksonville, where he is in poor physical condition, has never fully recovered and is struggling, Frank said. "It ruins their life," he added. "You don't have to be beat to within an inch of your life to play a trumpet. That's nonsense, and they know it, and this tradition is just way off base."
A spokeswoman for the school did not return a call seeking comment.
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."
Ammons has acknowledged that at least 30 band members were let go this semester because of possible involvement in hazing.