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Florida A&M alumni group: Hazing a national problem

By the CNN Wire Staff
updated 9:28 PM EST, Sun December 18, 2011
Some band members have said Robert Champion may have died after a rite of passage involving a beating aboard a bus.
Some band members have said Robert Champion may have died after a rite of passage involving a beating aboard a bus.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Florida's governor says he "merely suggested" the FAMU president step aside
  • NEW: The board is expected to consider Scott's recommendation on Monday
  • The governor recommended the suspension until investigations are complete
  • Drum major Robert Champion died of hemorrhagic shock after hazing, a medical examiner rules

(CNN) -- Florida Gov. Rick Scott could place Florida A&M University's accreditation in jeopardy by requesting the suspension of the university's president, the head of the school's National Alumni Association said Sunday.

An investigation is under way into various issues at the university following the death of Robert Champion Jr., 26. The drum major in the Florida A&M band died last month in a suspected hazing incident. His death has been ruled a homicide.

In response, Scott said in a statement he was "disappointed in the direction the dialog regarding the hazing-murder of a Florida A&M University student has taken."

"This week, I learned of reports of at least one child molestation case that took place on campus," Scott said, referring to a case unrelated to the hazing allegations. He added that university President James Ammons told him he was not aware of the alleged incident until months after it occurred.

"Based on all of these facts, I merely suggested it would be wise for Dr. Ammons to step aside until these investigations are completed," he said.

Ralph Monroe, 18, a graduate of FAMU's Developmental Research School, was arrested in October and faces two counts of lewd and lascivious acts on a child under 12, according to the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. He is accused of molesting an 8-year-old student in a school bathroom in May while still a student at the K-12 school, which is located on the FAMU campus.

Attempts by CNN to contact Monroe were unsuccessful Sunday, and it was unclear whether he had retained an attorney.

FAMU officials were unavailable for comment on the matter Sunday, but FAMU spokeswoman Pam Tolson told the Tallahassee Democrat newspaper the research school has made several changes since this school year began, including increasing supervision of all students after school and buying and implementing a system to perform background checks on all visitors and volunteers.

The board of trustees is expected to consider Scott's request regarding Ammons on Monday.

FAMU National Alumni Association President Tommy Mitchell told reporters Sunday the president of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, which oversees accreditation, sent a "warning" to Scott after the governor asked the university's board of trustees to suspend Ammons.

The warning said that school governing boards should be free of influence from government bodies, Mitchell said. If the board suspends Ammons at Scott's direction, it could have unforeseen consequences for the university, he added.

"Gov. Scott should not be in the position of weakening the accreditation of our alma mater," Mitchell said.

Roland Martin: Only students can truly end hazing

After meeting with Scott on Friday, Ammons said the two had a "great conversation" and both "have the interests of Florida A&M University at heart."

"The governor made a recommendation, and as governor, he can make a recommendation," the university president said Friday. "At the end of the day, it is up to the board of trustees. I will be right along with (their) decision."

Mitchell said the association's thoughts and prayers are with Champion's family. But he stressed that hazing is a national problem, and said deaths have occurred at other schools. Twelve to 13 deaths have occurred this year, he said, in Florida and other states, but did not provide specifics.

Parents of slain drum major speak

"Name another university that suspended a president for hazing -- and they have deaths every year," Mitchell said. "... Hazing has occurred all over the country. Deaths have occurred all over the country."

He questioned why the situation at Florida A&M is receiving so much attention, adding it may be an "HBCU (historically black college and university) problem."

In his statement, Scott said FAMU was not being singled out. He said he has called on all Florida universities to examine their hazing and harassment policies and requested that university presidents remind their students, faculty and staff "of how detrimental hazing can be."

Ammons has already been publicly reprimanded by the school's board of trustees, Scott noted.

"It is up to the FAMU Board of Trustees and Dr. Ammons to determine how to proceed," he said. "I have not and will not try to influence their decision. I simply offered my advice and opinion based on the events and the facts I was made aware of."

Controversy has swirled around the Tallahassee university since Champion's death, including three arrests tied to the alleged hazing of a freshman band member a few weeks earlier.

And Jerry Bailey, commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, said last week that investigators looking into Champion's death have turned up evidence "that there were financial irregularities having to do with the band and several other components of the university." The suspected financial irregularities are not directly related to the death.

These issues prompted Scott on Thursday to recommend to the chairman of Florida A&M's trustees that they suspend Ammons until state investigations of the university and its leadership are complete.

Asked what he believes should happen, Mitchell said Sunday that the association is waiting for the results of the investigations.

"We recognize hazing is against the law," he said. "We realize there must be consequences. We will support consequences when this happens."

Orange County officials said in a statement that Champion died November 19 because of "hemorrhagic shock" -- the result of excessive internal bleeding -- "due to soft tissue hemorrhage, due to blunt force trauma sustained during a hazing incident." He died in Orlando, where his band had been playing.

No one has been charged in Champion's death. The Orange County Sheriff's Office released a statement Friday indicating that its detectives "have followed all appropriate protocols as if investigating a homicide" and suggesting that more action will be forthcoming.

"In the coming days and weeks, investigators will be working with the State Attorney's office to identify the charges that are applicable," the sheriff's office said, noting that "the vast majority" of witnesses to the incident have been interviewed.

According to a medical examiner's summary of the autopsy findings, Champion was "previously healthy (when he) collapsed and died within an hour of a hazing incident during which he suffered multiple blunt trauma blows to his body."

He complained that he was thirsty and tired immediately after the incident and, minutes later, lost his eyesight and suffered a cardiac arrest.

"These symptoms are consistent with hypotension or shock," the statement noted.

Read the autopsy report (PDF)

The autopsy conducted after his death found "extensive contusions of his chest, arms, shoulder and back," as well as "evidence of crushing of areas of subcutaneous fat" -- which is the fatty tissue directly under a person's skin. Champion didn't have any bone fractures or injuries to his internal organs.

The medical examiner didn't find any evidence of "natural disease except for a slightly enlarged heart," nor did toxicology tests reveal signs of drugs or alcohol.

Some band members have said Champion died after taking part in a rite of passage called "crossing Bus C." One member, who spoke on condition of anonymity, explained that students "walk from the front of the bus to the back of the bus backward while the bus is full of other band members, and you get beaten until you get to the back."

Four students were expelled from the school, and another 30 were dismissed from the band after Champion's death, Ammons wrote in a letter to the board of trustees last month.

The young man's father, Robert Champion Sr., said, "We are pleased to find out what caused our son's death."

"Now, we need to move forward, so this doesn't have to happen to any other kid," the father said in a statement.

Solomon L. Badger III, the chairman of FAMU's board of trustees, called the homicide ruling "extremely upsetting," albeit expected.

"We will continue to cooperate with all agencies looking into the matter and are committed to creating a safe environment for the entire FAMU community and ensuring that this never happens again at FAMU," Badger said in a statement.

School trustees have placed band director Julian White on administrative leave, in addition to reprimanding Ammons. Badger, the board's chairman, said Thursday that a decision on how the university goes "forward" -- including the president's fate -- will come Monday.

Mitchell told reporters Sunday he was in the band as a student at the university, and retired from the school in 2007. His granddaughter is now a student, he said.

As a band member, "I made it absolutely clear nobody was going to touch me," he said.

"I am very much concerned" about the hazing allegations, he said. "We plan to look into how we can do what no one else has done, and that is stop hazing."

CNN's Ashley Hayes contributed to this report.

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