Lawyer: FAMU administrators turned 'blind eye' to hazing reports

FAMU: A culture of hazing
FAMU: A culture of hazing

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FAMU: A culture of hazing 02:37

Story highlights

  • FAMU postpones its anti-hazing task force's work given other investigations
  • Robert Champion died last month, after an alleged hazing incident
  • Four fellow band members were expelled and the school fired the director
  • A former band member says the band director was strongly against hazing
An attorney for the family of a Florida A&M University drum major who died suddenly last month accused the school of "turning a blind eye" to reports of hazing.
Robert Champion, 26, died after a November 19 football game that included a halftime performance by the Florida A&M Marching 100 band. No cause of death has been released.
But university officials have said hazing was a factor. Four students were expelled from the school, and another 30 were dismissed from the band, school President James Ammons wrote in a letter to the board of trustees Tuesday.
Christopher Chestnut, the lawyer for Champion's family, reiterated Friday night in an interview with HLN's Vinnie Politan the family's intention to sue the school. He said that he hopes the lawsuit -- including experts on hazing that will be brought in as part of it -- can help the university and the band implement revamped anti-hazing policies and practices.
"FAMU is a great institution, but it's got a problem, and there's a culture of hazing in the band," Chestnut said. "That's why are intending to file a lawsuit, because we want to help them cure this problem so that no one else loses their life, like Robert Champion."
The attorney said that he felt both civil and criminal legal action may be necessary to spur action. Under Florida law, the charge for any death that occurs as the result of hazing is a third-degree felony.
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Chestnut alleged that Champion died after receiving "some dramatic blows, perhaps (having an) elevated heart rate" tied to "a hazing ritual" that took place on the bus where medics first responded to him.
The lawyer said that this was not the first such hazing report involving the band and the university, claiming administrators did not do enough to stop the practice from taking place.
"The university was on notice that this was a problem within the band," Chestnut said. "They turned a blind eye and a deaf ear."
One former Marching 100 band member, Jeannie Taylor, told HLN's Politan that she never witnessed or took part in hazing during her time at the school.
She admitted there were "rumors" of such activity taking place, but insisted that the 420-member FAMU band's longtime director -- Julian White -- made a point of denouncing hazing.
"From the moment I entered the band in 1998, Dr. White has always had a zero tolerance towards this issue," Taylor said.
She recalled one incident in which White gave a "huge lecture" after learning of an alleged hazing incident.
"(He) let everybody know that this was not acceptable. If you get caught doing this -- whether you're being hazed or you're the one doing the hazing, you're both out," she said.
Ammons moved to fire White shortly after Champion's death, citing "alleged misconduct and/or incompetence involving confirmed reports and allegations of hazing with the Department of Music and the 'Marching 100.'"
White, who has hired an attorney to fight for his job, said he is staunchly against hazing, which he described as a national problem. "This is a problem that we are going to have to address as a nation if we are going to save the youth of America," he said.
After the death, the university president also suspended all band performances and said he would convene a task force "to determine if there are any unauthorized and questionable activities associated with the culture of the Marching 100."
But on Friday, the school announced that Ammons "has postponed" this task force's work to review anti-hazing regulations.
Florida Board of Governors chairwoman Ava Parker sent a letter to the chairman of FAMU's board of trustees notifying him the board had asked the chancellor of Florida's state university system to conduct a separate investigation, the school noted in its statement. That probe will look at "whether the university administrators took appropriate action to address the hazing activities."
The FAMU press release also noted the ongoing investigation being done by the Orange County Sheriff's Office and the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.
Ammons decided to postpone the FAMU task force after discussions with the Florida governor's office. The school president vowed "our full support" to the board of governors as it conducted its investigation, the statement said.
Gov. Rick Scott weighed in on the issue Thursday, calling for a review of state universities' hazing and harassment policies.
"Hazing should be strictly condemned on our college and university campuses and by any organization associated directly or indirectly with our institutions," Scott said in a letter to the chancellor of the state university system.