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Hazing may have played role in death at FAMU

Hazing is being blamed for the death of a Florida A&M University student. His family says the school has a culture of hazing.

By CHRISTINE ARMARIO AND GREG BLUESTEINAssociated Press / November 29, 2011

Hazing accusations at FAMU: Robert Champion Sr (l.) his wife, Pam (r.) and their attorney Christopher Chestnut participate in a news conference on Monday, in Lithonia, Ga. The Champions, parents of Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion who died of suspected hazing Nov. 19, in Orlando, Fla., said they plan on filing a civil lawsuit in the matter.

Erik S. Lesser/AP

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Robert Champion fell in love with music at about age 6 when he saw a marching band at a parade in downtown Atlanta. So mesmerized by the festivities, he came home, took out pots and pans and started banging away like a little drummer.

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His passion led him to marching bands from middle school through college. He was a drum major for the famed Marching 100 band of Florida A&M University, a group that has performed at Super Bowls, the Grammys and presidential inaugurations. The prestige brought along a "culture of hazing" and a secret world that played a role in Champion's death, his family said Monday.

"It needs to stop. The whole purpose is to put this out there and let people know there has to be a change," Champion's mother, Pam, said at a news conference.

On Nov. 19, after the school's football team lost its annual game with rival Bethune-Cookman, Champion collapsed on a bus parked outside an Orlando, Fla., hotel. The 26-year-old junior had been vomiting and complained he couldn't breathe shortly before he became unconscious.

When authorities arrived about 9:45 p.m., Champion was unresponsive. He died at a nearby hospital.

Authorities have not released any more details, except to say hazing played a role. An attorney representing Champion's family also refused to talk specifics.

"We are confident from what we've learned that hazing was a part of his death. We've got to expose this culture and eradicate it," Christopher Chestnut said. "There's a pattern and practice of covering up this culture."

Since Champion's death, the school has shuttered the marching band and the rest of the music department's performances. The longtime band director, Julian White, was fired.

The college also announced an independent review led by a former state attorney general and an ex-local police chief in Tallahassee, where the historically black college is based.

White, who believes he was unfairly dismissed, said Monday he had suspended 26 band members for hazing two weeks before Champion died. He took heat for the decision, particularly from the parents of band members, and said the punishments were like suspending star football players.

"And so the band members were apprehensive. 'Doc, you think we can go without 19 trombone players?'" White said at a Tallahassee news conference. "And other folks. 'Doc, do you thing you can do it without them?' My comment was, it doesn't matter, I am not going to sacrifice the performance for the principle."

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