Abuse on campus: Will Florida A&M death bring crackdown on hazing?

The hazing death of a member of the Florida A&M marching band has led to the resignation of the university president and a wrongful death lawsuit and likely will serve as a warning to US campus leaders. 

Phil Coale/AP/File
In this June 2008 file photo, James Ammons, President of Florida A&M University, announces that the school has had it's accreditation restored by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, in Tallahassee, Fla. Ammons resigned Wednesday, July 11, the same day parents of a drum major who died after being hazed added the university to a wrongful death lawsuit.

The resignation of Florida A&M University (FAMU) President James Ammons Wednesday once again throws a spotlight on the question of how much campus leaders should do in response to hazing.

FAMU was targeted Wednesday in a wrongful-death lawsuit by the family of Robert Champion, which alleges that university officials knew of a dangerous hazing culture before the drum major died in November after a beating ritual on a bus of the famed Marching 100 band.

Eleven band members are also facing felony hazing charges in Champion’s death.

Like the reverberations of sexual-abuse allegations at Penn State, “you can be assured that for higher education leaders across the country, this event [at FAMU] will serve as reminder and a learning opportunity [that] when there is any doubt, any suspicion that there is the potential for negligent behavior to be taking place, that they need to be proactive,” says Daniel Hurley, director of state relations and policy analysis at the American Association of State Colleges and Universities (AASCU) in Washington.

The band was suspended after the death, and in May that suspension was extended for the upcoming school year. The band director retired.

The wrongful death lawsuit was also filed against the bus company and bus driver, accusing them of complicity in the hazing ritual during a band trip to Orlando.

Mr. Ammons did not mention the hazing death in his letter of resignation. Information has been surfacing in recent months suggesting that other senior officials knew about egregious hazing incidents shortly before Champion died – prompting speculation that Ammons also knew, or should have known and should have done more to stop it.

Earlier this summer Ammons received a no-confidence vote from the Board of Trustees.

In his resignation letter, Ammons says he plans to continue in his post until October and then stay at the university as a professor. The trustees scheduled a meeting for Monday to discuss his replacement and his future role.

“He should have been fired,” says Ricky Jones, a professor at the University of Louisville and the author of “Black Haze: Violence, Sacrifice, and Manhood in Black Greek-Letter Fraternities.”

The lack of action by top officials – even after police allegedly recommended to the dean of students and other senior administrators that the band should be suspended because of hazing, just days before Champion’s death – is “one of the most latent displays of leadership negligence that I’ve seen,” Professor Jones says.

“We don’t have a college or university right now that is going to take [allegations of] sexual abuse lightly, because [former Penn State president] Graham Spanier lost his job [in the wake of the Sandusky case],” Jones says. But hazing has largely been ignored, he says.

“When you have hazing cases, start firing the presidents … and you’ll have a more serious approach from upper-level administrators,” Jones urges.

While there can be isolated egregious cases like those alleged at FAMU, the general trend has been a crackdown on hazing, says Mr. Hurley of AASCU. University leaders “have actually taken a proactive and stronger role in addressing hazing and other behavioral issues that are detrimental,” he says.

Reactions to the resignation of Ammons – who took the helm in 2007– also have expressed appreciation for his tenure.

“I saw this pressure coming, but I was hoping they’d realize the better strength of this man,” said FAMU math professor Calvin Robinson.

"From the outset of his tenure, President Ammons has shown strong leadership and has worked to ensure that FAMU remains a beacon of academic excellence,” Florida Rep. Alan Williams (D) of Tallahassee said in a statement as reported by Tallahassee.com.

“Given all that has transpired, it seems to be in the best interest of the university and I applaud him for putting FAMU ahead of his personal goals,” said Solomon Badger III, chair of the Board of Trustees.

Associated Press material was used in this report.

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