Hazing update: FAMU band back in action after student's death

Florida A&M's Marching 100 returns to the field Sunday for the first time since the 2011 death of the band's drum major during a hazing ritual. The tragedy sparked a broad crackdown on hazing on campuses, but the tradition is proving to be hard to eradicate.

Robert Champion, seen here as a drum major in a 2011 file photo, died during a hazing ritual with Florida A&M's marching band. The band is performing again after two years of reorganization.

On Sunday, Sept. 1, Florida A&M’s Marching 100 will make its first appearance since it was suspended, performing in Orlando nearly two years after drum major Robert Champion died there during a hazing ritual on the band’s bus.

The university’s subsequent measures to prevent hazing – including a new code of conduct, reporting and investigating procedures, and antihazing research – will help ensure that the band “will actually focus on its founding principles of character, academics, leadership, marching and service,” interim President Larry Robinson said in August. “We are fairly confident that we are about to launch a new era and a new understanding and appreciation as to why hazing is not necessary to advance these principles,” he said.

Hazing is so deeply embedded in the culture of a wide range of student organizations that ongoing vigilance will be required to change attitudes and prevent it, antihazing experts say.

Around the country, efforts are under way to crack down on hazing – sparked in part by Mr. Champion’s death. But hazing incidents continue in both college and high school settings.

• The Towson University cheerleading team, last year’s national champion, was just suspended for this academic year for hazing, the Towerlight campus news site reported Thursday. An appeal is pending.

Florida International University recently suspended the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity temporarily after Facebook discussions about hazing new members prompted the university to investigate.

• Police are investigating members of the Northbridge (Mass.) High School football team on suspicion that they hazed a freshman teammate during a recent practice. They are accused of pressuring him to drink from a jug of urine after failing to complete a physical task.

• Five student athletes at Plano (Ill.) High School faced criminal charges this week stemming from alleged sexual assault of a fellow athlete in a locker room after practice in February. The principal sent a letter to parents outlining new training and safety procedures and a student safety phone line.

• An ongoing civil lawsuit in Des Plaines, Ill., claims that members of Maine West High School sports teams were hazed and sexually assaulted -- and that school officials who knew about it did not stop the attacks. Two coaches were fired, and one of them is facing criminal charges for hazing and failing to report abuse, according to various news reports.

Forty-four states, including Illinois, have antihazing laws. Illinois gave its law more teeth recently by adding criminal penalties for university or school staff or volunteers who fail to report hazing. At least four other states – Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and South Carolina -- have a similar provision.

Hazing acts are also sometimes prosecuted under other laws that carry stiffer penalties.

Legal definitions of hazing vary somewhat by state, but the National Collaborative for Hazing Research and Prevention defines it as “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.”

More than half of college students involved in clubs, teams, or organizations had experienced some form of hazing, though most said they would not call the activities hazing, according to a major study in 2008 by the collaborative, based at the University of Maine. About 25 percent said they believed adults in authority knew about the activities, and more than half posted pictures online.

In addition to legal enforcement, education of coaches and students is on the rise, to change the culture and to encourage bystanders to intervene or report what they’ve witnessed, says Brian Crow, who has studied athletic hazing as a sport management professor at Slippery Rock University in Pennsylvania.

Sports team members who are hazed or who witness hazing often don’t speak up because of “misconceptions of what it means to be a teammate,” Professor Crow says. They’d rather suffer through something terrible than get the team in trouble, he says, and “hazing exploits that need to be part of a group.”

At FAMU, Jermaine Robertson, an associate professor of psychology, has been researching hazing, including surveying FAMU students’ attitudes and behaviors. Pilot data indicate that about 36 percent of those who completed the survey have been exposed to hazing, either as victims, perpetrators, or witnesses, he says.

“I’m very optimistic about the efforts to ensure our student organizations operate with respect and integrity,” says Professor Robertson, who played alto saxophone in the Marching 100 as a FAMU student in the early 1990s.

But “there still a long way to go with helping students understand the nature of hazing and its negative impact,” Robertson says. Despite Champion’s and others’ deaths, a lot of students around the country “still don’t see it as a problem. I don’t think there’s a point in the near future where we can relax and say, OK, we got it.”

National antihazing prevention week, organized by HazingPrevention.Org, is Sept. 23-27.

Material from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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