Hazing trial opens for FAMU band member: Have new laws had an impact?

The death of a Florida A&M marching band member during a hazing ritual is going to trial, as many states toughen anti-hazing laws.

The trial of a Florida A&M University student charged with organizing a hazing ritual that led to a band member's death begins Monday, almost three years after the beating took place.

Three other members of the renowned Florida A&M marching band, also charged with felony hazing and manslaughter, were granted a postponement until April to allow time to question witnesses on new hazing charges. 

Forty-four states and the District of Columbia have anti-hazing laws, and some states have voted recently to toughen their hazing penalties. Just this month, two high school football teams saw their seasons suspended after alleged hazing incidents.

But so far, such laws appear to have had little impact in reducing the number of hazing incidents, especially those that result in tragedy.

Robert Champion, a senior member of the band, had resisted hazing for years and even signed a pledge to report it if he witnessed it. Yet after a game in Orlando, Fla., in November 2011, Mr. Champion and a few friends decided to climb into an unlit school bus outside the team's hotel and face the band's "crossing Bus C" hazing ritual.

According to investigators, Champion walked down the bus while as many as 20 band members kicked and punched. The accumulation of blows are cited as the cause of Champion's death.

Fifteen former band members were originally charged with manslaughter and hazing in the death of Champion. All but four of the remaining defendants have had their cases settled, and several of them will be called as witnesses during trials of the remaining defendants. Dante Martin, the alleged ringleader, whose trial began Monday,  allegedly organized the Bus C ritual, could face up to 15 years in prison, if convicted. Darryl Cearnel, Aaron Golson, Benjamin McNamee and Mr. Martin have pleaded not guilty.

Most state anti-hazing laws are "ineffective," says Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Franklin, Ind., who has researched hazing for decades. But the Champion case could change things, he adds.

Mr. Nuwer compares it to the 2001 case of Chad Meredith, a University of Florida student who drowned in a fraternity hazing incident. The case led to Florida's passing the Chad Meredith Act, considered one of the toughest anti-hazing laws in the country.

But the benchmark sentence for college fraternity hazing is two years in prison, while incidents of occupational hazing reach 18 years in prison, he adds.

The punishments attached to anti-hazing laws can vary widely. Oklahoma and Alabama limit fines to $500, and Colorado's fines range from $50 to $750. The maximum fines in Indiana and Michigan, meanwhile, reach $10,000. Maryland voted this year to increase its fine for hazing from $500 to $5,000.

"Nobody is being deterred in any way," said Maryland state Sen. Jamie Raskin (D) of Montgomery County, in an interview with Bloomberg News after introducing the measure. University administrators who supported the increase said the original $500 fine represented little more than a weekend's worth of beer to fraternities.

Efforts to introduce a federal anti-hazing law last year were derailed after lobbying from the Fraternity and Sorority Political Action Committee, or FratPAC, last year. The PAC has contributed almost $160,000 to federal candidates this election cycle and has steadily increased its contributions since 2006, according to OpenSecrets.org.

But perhaps the toughest obstacle in the battle to stop hazing is its deeper social and cultural roots, which have little to do with state legislation and fundraising dollars and more to do with a human desire for acceptance and status.

Champion was already a student leader in the Florida A&M band when he decided to take part in "crossing Bus C." In the end, according to Lanauze Hollis, his roommate on the band trip, Champion decided to take part with Mr. Hollis in order to gain "respect" from band members.

Hollis, who got pummeled as he walked down Bus C just before Champion, is expected to be a key witness in the trial.

"As an authority figure in the band, it got a bit frustrating when you're trying to tell the [percussion] members – you know, give directions – and they're just blatantly disrespecting you just because you're not in some organization that they're part of," Hollis said in a sworn statement. "I did it for the same reason everybody else does: to get respect."

Nuwer says that "something has to change nationwide" in the culture around hazing if incidents like the deaths of Champion and Meredith are going to be avoided in the future. While anti-hazing laws can get tougher, the Chad Meredith Act was still unable to prevent Champion's death barely a decade after it became law.

"It shows you that no matter what the age," he adds, "our quest for status and power and belonging and being accept by the group never goes away."

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