Florida A&M’s marching band suspended after drum major dies

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LITHONIA, Ga. — Robert Champion fell in love with music at about age 6 when he saw a marching band at a parade in downtown Atlanta. Mesmerized by the festivities, he came home, took out pots and pans and started banging away like a little drummer.

His passion led him to marching bands from middle school through college. He was a drum major for the famed “Marching 100” band of Florida A&M University, a group that has performed at Super Bowls, the Grammys and presidential inaugurations. The prestige brought along a “culture of hazing” and a secret world that played a role in Mr. Champion’s death, his family said Monday.

“It needs to stop. The whole purpose is to put this out there and let people know there has to be a change,” Mr. Champion’s mother, Pam, said at a news conference.

On Nov. 19, after the school’s football team lost an away game to rival Bethune-Cookman, Mr. Champion collapsed on a bus parked outside an Orlando, Fla., hotel. The 26-year-old junior had been vomiting and complained he couldn’t breathe shortly before he became unconscious. He died shortly afterward at a nearby hospital.

Authorities have not released any more details, except to say that hazing played a role. An attorney representing Mr. Champion’s family also refused to talk specifics.

“We are confident from what we’ve learned that hazing was a part of his death. We’ve got to expose this culture and eradicate it,” Christopher Chestnut said.

Since Mr. Champion’s death, the school has shuttered the marching band and the rest of the music department’s performances. The longtime band director, Julian White, was fired.

The college also announced an independent review led by a former state attorney general and a local former police chief in Tallahassee, where the historically black college is based.

Mr. White, who thinks he was unfairly dismissed, said Monday he had suspended 26 band members for hazing two weeks before Mr. Champion died. He took heat for the decision, particularly from the parents of band members, and said the punishments were like suspending star football players.

“My comment was, it doesn’t matter. I am not going to sacrifice the performance for the principle,” Mr. White said.

Hazing has a long history in marching bands, particularly at historically black colleges, where a spot in the band is coveted for its tradition and prominence. Band performances are sometimes revered as much as the school’s sports teams.

FAMU has been at the center of some of the worst cases. In 2001, former FAMU band member Marcus Parker suffered kidney damage because of a beating with a paddle. Three years earlier, Ivery Luckey, a clarinet player, said he was paddled around 300 times and had to go to the hospital.

Mr. Champion’s parents said their son never spoke of hazing. Robert Champion Sr. said he talked to his son just a few days before his death, and everything was fine.

“I wanted to believe stuff like that wouldn’t happen,” he said. “I would ask my son questions. ‘Is there anything you need to tell me? Let me know.’ He told me, ‘Dad, everything is going OK. I’m working, trying to go to school and practice.’ “

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