Despite new director, FAMU Marching 100 struggles to shed hazing legacy

The Florida A&M University Marching 100 band hired a new director but remains suspended. Administrators say they want to root out the culture of hazing that led to Robert Champion's death.

Red Huber/Orlando Sentinel/AP/File
Former FAMU percussionist Caleb Jackson (l.) confers with his attorney, Chuck Hobbs, last month in Orlando, Fla. Jackson pleaded 'no contest' in the fatal hazing of drum major Robert Champion.

The famed Marching 100 band at Florida A&M University (FAMU) has a new director, alumnus Sylvester Young. But when the group’s percussive precision steps will be featured again on a playing field is still up in the air.

It depends, Mr. Young and FAMU interim president Larry Robinson implied Tuesday, on how long it takes to change the culture of hazing that led to a student’s death and the band’s suspension in the fall of 2011. The fallout included the resignation of the band director and the university’s president, criminal charges, and civil lawsuits.

“We can’t just put them back on the field as if nothing has happened,” said Young after the announcement Tuesday. He said that the death of drum major Robert Champion has opened the eyes of band leaders around the country to the need to address hazing, a practice he said probably was going on back in the 1960s when he marched in the band.

FAMU’s new policies include more academic requirements for joining the band, as well as campuswide zero tolerance for hazing. People with knowledge of hazing activity are required to report it within 24 hours, and retaliation against someone who makes such a report is prohibited.

At least 15 students have been dismissed this year so far over hazing allegations, and some students have complained the policies have gone overboard.

The school also announced this week that Deirdre McRoy would fill a new position to ensure the music department was complying with anti-hazing policies.

Changing the culture, anti-hazing advocates say, will take more than a change in policies and leadership.

What it’s really all about is a change in the “culture of organizational membership” – which in this band and in many similar groups, such as Greek letter organizations, has long been based on the idea that one qualifies by overcoming the adversity of a hazing ritual, says John Williams, executive director of the Center for the Study of Pan-Hellenic Issues in Tuskegee, Ala.

It may be necessary for FAMU to suspend the band until there’s been a sufficient reflection period for “students, administrators, and alumni of the band to realize they have to revisit their entire value system – that what they have believed in for so many years does not have validity,” says Mr. Williams, who has studied hazing in African-American organizations for more than 25 years. “Bonding naturally occurs when there’s a supportive environment, not a challenging environment.”

Marching 100 members such as Joshua Dandridge are eager to get started with their new leader. “I’m definitely ready. I’m a music major so I'm always practicing and I'm always encouraging other people to practice. The spirit of the 100 never went away just because we were suspended,” he told the Associated Press.

Young has directed bands at several universities, including Ohio University, where he also taught in the music department. He came out of retirement to lead the Marching 100, and will be paid an annual salary of $105,000.

While replacing the band leader is a positive step, a real shift might require a whole new group of students in a reconfigured band, suggests Howard Bailey, vice president for student affairs at Western Kentucky University. In addition, he says, any faculty who work with the band would need to undergo intense training to eradicate hazing.

It’s disappointing that the death of Champion has not sparked more coordinated efforts among national organizations to stamp out hazing, Mr. Bailey says. The National Pan-Hellenic Council, the governing body over historically black Greek organizations, for instance, hasn’t even mentioned the incident in any prominent way, he says.

Indeed, more hazing-related deaths appear to have occurred recently. In April, two Virginia State University (VSU) students drowned in a river, and four men are being charged in the incident, believed to be related to an initiation rite for a social club that is not sanctioned by the university.

On Tuesday, VSU President Keith Miller announced that the university would be taking several steps to strengthen its anti-hazing policies, including setting up a task force and creating an online student organization guide to help students understand the difference between sanctioned and unsanctioned organizations.

“For far too long, hazing has been viewed as an acceptable rite of passage for many students in colleges and universities throughout the United States,” President Miller wrote in an open letter. “It is not enough to certify organizations and then proceed with a laissez faire attitude toward evaluation and practices. Today’s organizational behavior must be monitored frequently and thoroughly.”

FAMU will certainly bring back its band, given how much positive PR and revenue it generates, but it is doubtful that it will succeed in changing the hazing culture, says Ricky Jones, author of “Black Haze: Violence, Sacrifice, and Manhood in Black Greek-Letter Fraternities” and a professor of pan-African studies at the University of Louisville.

FAMU already had a track record of reported hazing incidents and student arrests before Champion’s death, he notes. If there are any changes on campus, he says, it’s because administrators are starting to see that their jobs can be at stake. But the culture of hazing is “so deep-seated” in many Greek-letter organizations and those that imitate them, that his advice to college students and their parents is “to stay away from these organizations – it’s not worth risking your kids’ lives.”

• Associated Press material was used in this report.

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