Death by hazing? Why even tragic FAMU case won't end such rituals.

Initiation rites are so ingrained in parts of college life that even egregious incidents aren't enough to eradicate hazing, experts say. Investigations into last month's death of a FAMU band major are under way.

David Goldman/AP
A marching band leads a horse-drawn carriage carrying the casket of Florida A&M University (FAMU) band member Robert Champion following his funeral service Wednesday in Decatur, Ga.

Hazing is so ingrained in various aspects of college life that even egregious incidents – such as allegations that a Florida A&M University (FAMU) marching band drum major died as a result of the rite – won't be enough to eradicate it, say some experts.

A criminal investigation into the death of student Robert Champion, allegedly tied to hazing, is under way. The university in Tallahassee has expelled four students and dismissed the longtime director of the Marching “100” band. Florida Gov. Rick Scott (R) has called for all state universities to review their antihazing policies to ensure they’re being enforced.

Though the Champion case has generated a flurry of national attention, hazing is so prevalent in college athletics, Greek organizations, and, in this case, prestigious historically black marching bands that experts are skeptical it can be ended.

One reason: Deaths and serious injuries have happened before in various college organizations because of hazing. At FAMU, band member Marcus Parker won $1.8 million in a 2001 lawsuit against fellow band members because of injuries from severe paddling.

Because the marching band is so central at many historically black universities such as FAMU – carrying more status than playing on the football team – “it’s almost like the students hurt or killed are acceptable losses but the band must play on,” says Ricky Jones, a professor at the University of Louisville and author of “Black Haze,” a book on black Greek-letter fraternities.

What’s particularly disturbing, Professor Jones says, is that the Champion case may indicate that hazing rituals are expanding beyond the typical initiation of new members of a group. Champion was a junior and in a leadership role as one of the drum majors.

There’s no official account yet of what happened during and after the football game in Orlando, Fla., Nov. 19, the night of Champion’s death. Band director Julian White told The New York Times that he interviewed students after the incident and discovered that some band members had punched Champion repeatedly before he vomited and passed out.

Jones has heard from some FAMU alumni that fellow band members may have punished Champion for dropping the drum major’s mace during the band’s performance that day.

Someone called 911 and tried to revive Champion on the bus parked outside their Orlando hotel.

Despite laws against hazing in 44 states, most hazing goes unreported.

“Awareness of hazing has increased greatly in the last decade, partially because ... people involved in it now put pictures of hazing on Facebook and [Twitter] ... but it still is an underground culture,” says Brian Crow, a professor of sport management at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania.

At the root of hazing is a group-think culture and a desire to exercise power, Professor Crow and others say. “It’s a vicious cycle of, ‘It happened to me when I was a freshmen and now it’s going to happen to them, and I’m going to make it a little bit worse,’ and it continues to build,” he says.

Victims often accept that it’s just the price they have to pay for being part of something special, and they often say it was worth it, Crow says.

This week, FAMU freshman Bria Hunter told WFTV that she was beaten several times this semester by band members, and that being part of the underground groups where the hazing takes place is seen as necessary to be accepted.

Many state laws deem hazing a misdemeanor. In Florida it’s a third-degree felony. But if more students were expelled or jailed, that might become a deterrent, says Thomas Reardon, assistant vice chancellor for student affairs and dean of students at the University of Mississippi, and also a longtime anti-hazing advocate.

“We’ve got to look at holding individuals responsible ... both criminally and through university student conduct systems,” he says.

It’s perhaps not surprising that FAMU moved quickly to fire band director Julian White, given the recent attention to questions of accountability for the sex-abuse scandal at Pennsylvania State University.

But Mr. White plans to challenge his dismissal and this week told reporters he’s made extensive efforts to enforce a zero-tolerance policy for hazing, including suspending band members earlier this semester.

“I hope that if nothing else, I can become part of some kind of national movement to eradicate hazing,” White said Thursday in Jacksonville, according to News4Jax.

White’s firing raises several questions, Jones says: Did the university follow the proper procedures given that White was also a tenured professor of music?And if he’s being let go not because he failed to respond to incidents he knew about (which no one seems to be alleging) but because of a general sense that hazing takes place and he wasn’t able to prevent it, why aren’t others – even the university president – also culpable?

FAMU president James Ammons has vowed to try to change the culture of hazing on campus. In addition to appointing a task force to examine the issue once criminal investigations are complete, he issued a statement this week to the editorial board at the Tallahasse Democrat that read in part:

“It is the university’s intent and absolute goal to break the culture of secrecy and the conspiracy of silence that has helped to institutionalize hazing, verbal and physical abuse.... We are going to honor the memory of Robert Champion by establishing a strong, safe new set of traditions in the culture of the music program and bands – and across our campus.”

Classes will be suspended for part of a day next week for a FAMU campus assembly on the issue.

But when the students in bands or other organizations have for so long refused to change hazing traditions, maybe it’s time for college administrators to make the bold move of shutting them down, Jones suggests.

“It’s not a question of if someone else will be killed, it’s a case of when somebody else will be killed,” Jones says. “Are the organizations that important [on campus] that you wait and say, will this hit my campus next?”

Material from Associated Press and McClatchy Newspapers was used in this report.

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