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For many in FAMU band, pain a part of admission process

By Phil Gast and Josh Levs, CNN
updated 5:31 AM EST, Wed December 14, 2011
Florida A&M University's marching band had been plagued with accusations of hazing.
Florida A&M University's marching band had been plagued with accusations of hazing.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Attorney for one suspect said "inconsistencies"in account favor his client
  • Attorney says Hunter is leaving FAMU, likely to file lawsuit
  • Three suspects are charged with hazing; two are charged with felony battery
  • A 1998 alleged incident left a student with severe bruising

(CNN) -- Bria Hunter tried to lie her way out of a meeting of the "Red Dawg Order," a club within the famed Marching 100 Band at Florida A&M University. For her deceit, according to police, the clarinet player was allegedly struck more than 20 times.

And for failing to memorize and properly cite information about the clique?

That, according to a probable cause affidavit, resulted in a metal ruler across Hunter's leg. The cumulative injuries to her legs, according to police, landed Hunter in the hospital several days later with blood clots, deep bone bruising and a cracked femur.

Getting into the "Clones," another group within the Marching 100, apparently didn't come without pain, either.

Ivery Luckey estimated he was struck nearly 300 times, mostly "hard licks" at an initiation. Of the 25 to 30 people present, most were females, and several used wooden paddles on Luckey, according to a Tallahassee police report.

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Luckey ended up in the hospital and had full renal failure, he said.

The hazing-related death of band member Robert Champion has brought renewed public scrutiny to a practice that has gone on for years.

The Hunter and Luckey cases, 13 years apart, have shed light on the types of hazing some have allegedly faced as they've tried to be a part of perhaps the most famous marching band in the land.

Tuesday, three band members accused of hazing Hunter appeared in a Tallahassee courtroom.

Attorney B.J. Bernstein said that Hunter, 18, who attended high school in metro Atlanta, is leaving FAMU.

"Bria was very brave -- she notified the school, she notified the police," Bernstein said.

Just weeks before he died in what authorities say was a hazing-related incident, drum major Champion gave her some advice, Hunter said.

She did not follow it.

"He would always tell me, like, don't let people do it to you," Hunter, 18, told CNN affiliate WFTV in late November.

When asked why she participated in the hazing, Hunter answered, "So we can be accepted. If you don't do anything, then it's like you're lame."

Champion, 26, who also attended Southwest DeKalb High School in Decatur, Georgia, died after a November 19 football game that included a halftime performance. The band returned to its Orlando hotel following the game.

The drum major "reportedly threw up in the parking lot and started complaining of not being able to breathe," authorities said in a release. Champion was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead. No cause of death has been released.

After Champion's death, some band members told CNN it may have been the result of a rite of passage called "crossing Bus C" -- the bus Champion was on after a game the night he died.

One band member, who spoke with CNN on condition of anonymity, explained, "You have to walk from the front of the bus to the back of the bus backwards while the bus is full of other band members and you get beaten until you get to the back." When asked what the point is, the band member answered, "for respect."

FAMU's board of trustees voted last week to reprimand its president in the wake of Champion's death, and the band's director has been placed on administrative leave while state police investigate.

School spokeswoman Sharon Saunders on Tuesday issued a statement saying the university's "board of trustees and President (James) Ammons hope that through these arrests, all involved in perpetuating this culture will really begin to view hazing as a serious matter."

FAMU has an anti-hazing policy.

But B.J. Bernstein, Hunter's attorney, said FAMU should be held accountable for hazing behavior, even if off-campus. She called the practice an "open secret."

"Young people may call themselves the Red Dawgs, but any adult would know this is nothing more than a gang, with a form of initiation which essentially is a beat-down," Bernstein told reporters.

Bernstein indicated her client most likely will file suit against FAMU.

The student is giving up a four-year, $82,000 scholarship, said Bernstein.

"For any person who's a subject of hazing or a victim, this is a huge issue of why they don't come forward," the attorney told reporters Tuesday afternoon. "We're talking about young people whose entire education hangs on the fact that the school is giving them a full scholarship to be part of one of what was considered to be the greatest band in the United States."

The Tallahassee Police probable cause affidavit said the three young men accused of hazing Hunter are members of the Red Dawgs clique.

Sean Hobson, 23, Aaron Golson, 19, and James Harris, 22 -- are charged with hazing, a crime under Florida law. Hobson and Golson are charged with felony battery as well.

WFTV : Band members arrested; 2 to fight hazing charges

The three appeared in court Tuesday, where they were ordered to have no contact with Hunter or with each other.

Golson's attorney told CNN that there are inconsistencies in the probable cause affidavit.

"We feel the allegations against him are for the most part unfounded," said attorney Craig J. Brown.

"His stance is he was not hazed and would not do it to anyone else," said Brown, indicating his client will waive arraignment and plead not guilty.

The affidavit says Hobson "denied all physical abuse allegations towards Hunter or any other pledge."

It also quotes a text message authorities say Hobson sent to multiple people, including Hunter, that read, "I apologize for the hurt I put you through. I apologize for the mental and physical strain that you have endured." But, the affidavit says, Hobson denied sending Hunter any such message.

The affidavit says Harris "denied ever witnessing Hunter be struck during any kind of initiation meeting."

An attorney representing Harris did not return a message left Tuesday by CNN. The clerk's office did not have an attorney of record for Hobson.

According to the affidavit, Hunter on October 31 falsely told Hobson that she could not attend an off-campus meeting because she had a meeting of her band section.

"For the deceit, Hunter stated that she was lined up with approximately 11 other pledges with her being at the front," the affidavit recounts. She said she was ordered to lift her legs up while standing, as if she was about to march, and was struck by Hobson and Golson, who were using their balled up fists "to punch her on the top of the thighs."

After she was hit more than 20 times in the legs, Harris intervened and told Hobson and Golson to stop, the affidavit says.

Three witnesses corroborated Hunter's account, and also said they were hit on the back of the head and neck, the affidavit says.

On November 1, at another meeting, Hunter and other pledges were beaten again, she told investigators. She said Hobson used a metal ruler across the top of her thighs.

"Accountability and responsibility is a critical part for any student who's a part of this," Bernstein said. "But even more so, Florida A&M has to change."

Incidents of hazing have followed the FAMU band for years. In 2001, a student was paddled so badly he had to be hospitalized for kidney failure, and just weeks before Champion's death, band director Julian White suspended 26 members for alleged hazing.

In 1998, a Tallahassee Police Department report described Ivery Luckey as being "severely beaten." He and two other students were to be initiated.

CNN Atlanta affiliate WXIA reported that Luckey filed a lawsuit against the Florida Board of Regents and reached a $50,000 settlement in 2004.

"Back then, you could be the best player on the field, but if you did not cross over in your section, there's no way you're marching at a game," Luckey told WXIA a few weeks ago.

"The hazing consisted of the group taking turns paddling each of the three continuously," the police report said. Luckey, a member of the clarinet section, estimated he was struck nearly 300 times at the off-campus initiation.

Luckey told officers people in the group would hold him down when he tried to get up. "He stated that mostly girls did all of the paddling and there were numerous slaps to his face."

At one point he decided the beating was too severe and started to leave, but members convinced him that it was nearly over and he should finish. The next day he was ill, and two days after the beating he was admitted to the hospital for severe bruising to his buttocks.

The report said it "was apparent that he was in fear of future violence as a result of pressing charges."

Bernstein said students who make complaints face pressure. Her client, she said, was crying and emotional before taking a final exam Tuesday.

"She experienced ridicule," the lawyer said of Hunter. "My understanding is some people already tweeting that it's a lie don't believe her. But there is no lie in what happened."

CNN's George Howell, Jason Carroll, Melanie Whitley and Vivian Kuo contributed to this report.

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