Florida A&M hazing arrests bring cloud

The future of the nationally-renowned marching bad is in doubt amid revelations that brutal hazing is traditional.

Joseph Brown III/The Tampa Tribune/AP/File
In this November 2011 file photo, Robert Champion, a Florida A&M University drum major, performs during halftime of a football game in Orlando, Fla.

Now that 13 people have been charged in the hazing death of a Florida A&M University drum major, the future is murky for a famed marching band that has performed at the Grammys, presidential inaugurations and Super Bowls.

The band was suspended immediately after Robert Champion's death in November, and even the governor says it's far too soon for the Marching 100 to take the field again. Champion's mother, Pam, took that even a step further: She said the band should be disbanded so the university can "clean house." She and the family's attorney contend there is a vast effort among students and others to cover up who is responsible for her son's death.

"If you don't clean the filth out it just stays there," she said Thursday. "You can't move forward as business as usual."

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Eleven people — all band members — have been charged with felony hazing resulting in death, said Gretl Plessinger, a Florida Department of Law Enforcement spokeswoman. Eight of them had been arrested by Thursday. Two others face misdemeanor charges.

Much like its renowned band, questions remain about the future of the school in Florida's capital city. There is still an ongoing criminal investigation into the finances of the band, as well as a probe by the state university system into whether top officials at the university ignored past warnings about hazing.

The Champion family has already told FAMU it plans to sue the university. FAMU itself set up a task force to look at hazing, although the panel has not met since a flare-up over whether it should follow the state's open meetings laws. Several members have since resigned.

Whatever happens, it's too soon for the band to start playing again, said Florida Gov. Rick Scott. He said he doesn't believe the school is yet in a position to make sure the same thing doesn't happen again.

"The band's got a great history, but we can't afford to lose another individual like Robert Champion," Scott said. "So I think they ought to continue the process they've been going through with their task force, but I don't think it's ready yet."

FAMU President James Ammons — who did not respond to multiple phone calls requesting comment the past two days — has still not said publicly what he plans to do about the band.

Several members of the board that oversees FAMU have also declined comment this week, deferring questions to the chairman of the board.

Chairman Solomon Badger, citing the other investigations, said he was hesitant to discuss the future while the other investigation remains pending.

Marjorie Turnbull, who is also on the board of trustees, said FAMU should not even consider reinstating the band until university officials are certain hazing has been stamped out.

"We've got to know this isn't going to happen again," Turnbull said.

Hundreds of pages of records reviewed earlier this year by The Associated Press showed years of repeated warnings about brutal hazing passed without any serious response from the school's leadership until Champion's death. Police files show that since 2007, nearly two dozen incidents involving the band, fraternities and other student groups had been investigated.

In the wake of Champion's death, band director Julian White was fired. But his dismissal was put on hold at the urging of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Ammons claimed White had not done enough to prevent hazing, but White's attorneys produced thick stacks of letters that showed he routinely suspended band members and he forwarded the letters to top officials.

Christopher Chestnut, attorney for the Champion family, said they feared hazing would continue unless the marching stopped. When asked what needed to happen for them to feel comfortable about the band proceeding again, Chestnut said: "You're asking us for a prescription to a flu, and we don't know the virus. We're still piecing this together."

Several of the 11 charged with a felony had already turned themselves in or been arrested. The latest was Aaron Golson, who turned himself into Gadsden County on Thursday. He also had been charged in a previous hazing incident at the school.

Rikki Wills, 23, had been released on bond. Caleb Jackson, 23, remained in jail because he was already on probation for battery.

Jasmine Alexander, who said she's the mother of a 3-year-old with Jackson and engaged to him, pleaded with the judge, saying Jackson is the only source of income for their family. Jackson told the judge through a video teleconference that he works at a Family Dollar store.

"He's been walking a straight path," Alexander told County Judge Ronald Flury.

Bryan Jones also bailed out of jail, and his attorney said he would plead not guilty. Attorney Alisia Adamson said he was a good kid who had never been arrested, was a junior deacon and aspired to join the military.

Other defendants who had turned themselves in by Thursday afternoon were: Jesse Baskin, 20, and Benjamin McNamee, in Miami-Dade County; Shawn Turner, 26, in Gadsden County; and Harold Finley, 20, in Palm Beach County. All but Finley had bonded out.

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