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Florida A&M president keeps band on suspension

By Ed Payne and Michael Pearson, CNN
updated 9:06 AM EDT, Tue May 15, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • NEW: Band member to accept plea deal in another hazing case, lawyer says
  • The suspension will remain in effect for the 2012-2013 academic year
  • FAMU drum major Robert Champion died after a November hazing incident
  • Thirteen people have been charged in his death

Read more about this story from CNN affiliate WCTV.

(CNN) -- The Florida A&M University marching band will remain on suspension through the 2012-2013 academic year while the school works to set new rules following the fatal hazing of a band member, university President James Ammons said in a conference call Monday with trustees.

"I was heavily influenced by the need to be respectful to Robert Champion's family as well as the other victims," Ammons said. "A young man lost his life, and others suffered serious injuries."

Authorities say Champion, 26, was badly beaten during a hazing incident on a band bus after a football game in Orlando last November. He died within an hour of the attack. Other hazing incidents that resulted in injuries to band members also have been reported.

Ammons said the band must be restructured, and the "limited time frame" between now and autumn is not enough time to accomplish that.

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While the band will not perform until 2013 at the earliest, school officials will present their plan for reinstating the band at the June meeting of trustees, he said.

Champion's father, Robert Champion Sr., said, "Any step forward to end hazing will help."

Trustees who spoke on the conference call supported Ammons' decision.

"We need to ensure that excellence and respect is achieved not through brutality, but through honorable academic, talent-based achievement and leadership," trustee Belinda Reed Shannon said.

Trustee Kelvin Lawson called the announcement "absolutely the right decision at the right time."

The decision to continue the band's indefinite suspension comes the week after director Julian White, who had been with the prestigious band for 40 years, stepped down under pressure.

He was placed on paid administrative leave shortly after the hazing death of Champion, a FAMU Marching 100 drum major.

As recently as last week, White, 71, had asked for full reinstatement as director. His attorney, Chuck Hobbs, said last week that White had tried to root out hazing for the past 22 years.

White's resignation last week came days after Ammons told the trustees in a letter that about 100 band members were not enrolled at the school during the fall, CNN affiliate WCTV reported.

Of the ineligible band members, 51 of them and one cheerleader made the fateful trip to Orlando. All received a daily allowance for expenses.

"We are looking into per diems claimed by individuals as part of the band trips," Gretl Plessinger of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement told WCTV.

The ritual that led to Champion's death, called "Crossing Bus C," is an initiation process in which pledges attempt to move down the center aisle of a bus while senior members assault them, according to some university band members.

An autopsy found "extensive contusions of (Champion's) chest, arms, shoulder and back," and "evidence of crushing of areas of subcutaneous fat."

Thirteen people have been charged in connection with Champion's death. Eleven are facing felony hazing charges, and two others are charged with misdemeanor hazing.

On Monday, one of the students charged in Champion's death has agreed to accept a plea deal in connection with the hazing of another student, according to his lawyer.

Student Aaron Golson will enter a plea Thursday on a misdemeanor battery charge in the hazing of student Bria Hunter, Golson's atorney, Craig J. Brown said.

The charges are separate from the felony hazing accusations Golson faces in Champion's death, Brown said. His client will fight those charges, he said.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement also is investigating "financial irregularities" involving the band.

Champion's death prompted the university board of trustees to approve an anti-hazing plan that includes an independent panel of experts to investigate.

The death brought renewed public scrutiny to hazing, which some students have contended has gone on for years despite what the Tallahassee university said were efforts to stop it.

The band has been under suspension following the incident and the resulting investigations. Champion's mother, Pam, has called for it to be disbanded.

"They need to clean out the filth to move forward. How can they allow the band out there?" she said last week. "They haven't done anything to safeguard students -- certainly not my son. My son was murdered."

In the letter last week to trustees, Ammons said he wanted to hear the opinions of student leaders, alumni, boosters and other groups about what they thought needed to happen before the marching band could be reinstated.

"A common theme among all of the groups is that a new set of guidelines should be in place before reinstating the band," Ammons said.

Before the announcement of the decision, University System Chancellor Frank Brogan had argued against reinstatement, saying too many questions remain.

"Reinstating the band prior to these issues being resolved would sidestep efforts under way, which could impact the band's long-term survival," Brogan said in his response to Ammons' letter. "Reconciling these and other issues under investigation will ensure that the institution's operational priorities and controls are in place."

The school is working on a plan to provide entertainment during home football games, as well as at two "classics" events at which the Marching 100 has been a fixture, Ammons said.

Despite its name, the band has about 420 members, according to the school.

It was not immediately clear what impact the decision would have on band members attending the school on a band scholarship. Ammons noted that band scholarships require students to perform publicly in addition to classwork, and all bands featuring Marching 100 members have been suspended.

But he said other bands and ensembles that do not have marching band members on their rosters will be allowed to continue to perform.

Throughout the school's history, the Marching 100, which incorporates dance moves into traditional marching formations, has been a source of pride for the school. It has played in inaugural parades for Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama and in several Super Bowls.

In 1985, the band won The Louis Sudler Intercollegiate Marching Band Trophy, awarded annually by the John Philip Sousa Foundation to "collegiate marching bands of particular excellence."

The band's website bills the Marching 100 as "The Most Imitated Marching Band in America."

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