Known both for excellence and long-established bonding rituals, including hazing, the Florida A&M University marching band is undergoing major reform after the death of Champion, a Georgia native, who died in November from compounded injuries received on a bus. Thirteen former band members have been charged with hazing, a third-degree felony in Florida, and the university president has stepped down. This week, the school also began an aggressive new anti-hazing policy that mandates all students sign an online pledge to avoid hazing.
A series of serious hazing incidents have beset African-American universities, in particular, during the past decade, leading to allegations of punching, caning, slapping, and choking incidents that have resulted in broken ribs, kidney failure, punctured lungs, blindness, and death.
“There are a lot of psychological theories on why people persist in hazing, but the fact is, especially at African-American fraternal organizations, there’s a lot of pressure on students to allow themselves to be hazed and … that hazing participants know fairly quickly that this is not going to be a walk in the park, but yet they persist,” says Gregory Parks, a law professor at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C., and an expert on hazing dynamics at historically black colleges.
According to a blunt, 23-page answer to the Champion family’s allegations, FAMU said Tuesday that Champion was aware of the dangers, having witnessed two band mates undergo a brutal bus-beating ritual ahead of him. The letter also said Champion had debated with friends whether or not to go through the ritual in order to improve his ranking in the tight-knit Marching 100 band.
FAMU lawyers added that the school could not “predict or prevent this shocking and depraved hazing incident, and therefore, it would be unfair and illogical to hold FAMU to a different and higher level of omnipotence.”