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After the Plea – Unanswered Questions in the FAMU Marching Band Hazing Death

 

Orange County, FL — Caleb Jackson, one of over 12 members of the Florida A&M University [FAMU] marching band, is set to plead guilty of felony hazing and manslaughter charges in the November 2011 death of drum major Robert Champion. During a recent hearing in an Orange County, FL courtroom, defense attorney Chuck Hobbs indicated the plea will come as soon as April. 

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(Left) Parents Robert Sr. and Pam Champion. (Right) Robert Champion, deceased drum major, during a performance of the FAMU marching band. Family photos.

Jackson was among a number of band members that brutally attacked Champion on the band bus following the FAMU vs. Bethune-Cookman football game. Champion sustained massive internal injuries that caused bleeding and left him laying in vomit as he clung to life. 

The tragic incident raises questions on a number of levels, some of which will not be answered by the outcome of this case.

FAMU Arrests - Caleb Jackson
Caleb Jackson, former FAMU band member involved in the fatal hazing of Robert Champion.

To what extent has Florida’s 2005 law —  that codified stricter prohibitions and sentencing guidelines — curbed hazing, historically most prevalent within fraternities and sororities?

Campuses across the country routinely find local chapters suspended for hazing. And while the official policies of organizations prohibit this practice, hazing and suspensions continue. Indeed, the recent FAMU tragedy follows the push by parents of Chad Meredith, a University of Miami student and Kappa Sigma pledge who died by drowning in 2001. Meredith’s parents won a civil suit and a $1.8 million award. Sadly, Meredith’s death occurred in the same year that FAMU band member, Marcus Parker, sustained paddling-related injuries that caused kidney failure. 

Incidents across the country that have led states to establish hazing laws are far too numerous for this article. However, incidents of hazing and chapters being suspended since the passage of such laws are as numerous. Thus, it remains to be seen whether these laws are effective in combating a tradition that goes back over a century in modern organizations and centuries when one traces the earliest beginnings of hazing, initiation, rites of passage, and similar traditions.

How is it that administrators at FAMU and other institutions that have seen terrible incident fail to take the necessary steps to eradicate hazing practices?

Recall, that FAMU had previously made the news when a number of members of Kappa Alpha Psi became the first to be prosecuted and sentenced under Florida’s new law after the February 2006 beating of Marcus Jones (then 20), an environmental science major. Jones suffered damages from paddling (commonly referred to as “taking wood”) that left him hospitalized, requiring surgery and 25 stitches along his buttocks. In that case, Kappas involved were eyeing graduation with majors in areas such as pharmacy and engineering. Circuit Judge Kathleen Dekker handed down 2-year sentences to Michael Morton (a former Alpha Xi Chapter President) and Jason Harris. Judge Dekker declared a mistrial in the cases of three additional Kappa members.

The verdict and sentences shocked FAMU. And despite the verdict, FAMU again came under the spotlight in 2012 when a student reported that two professors regularly participated in hazing rituals within the Kappa Psi Psi band fraternity connected with Champion’s death. Here, the statutes of limitation prohibited prosecution of the professors. But the disturbing revelations signal how deeply-ingrained hazing practices are in the culture of college organizations.

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“[Hazing at FAMU] did not happen simply by accident, nor did they result from benign neglect. The problems that have permeated FAMU for more than a year were a direct result of action or inaction by FAMU personnel, who either had not developed adequate policies or simply did not enforce policies that were in place,”

Frank Brogan, Chancellor
State University System 

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According to the Associated Press, in December 2012, the Florida Board of Governors Office of Inspector General released a scathing report of widespread problems with FAMU’s administration of anti-hazing measures. The 7,000-page report required 35 interviews and discussed over 100 incidents of hazing that went without redress before the Champion killing.

Are organizational policies more about ending hazing or protecting organizations?

Large settlements. An avalanche of attorneys rushing to the lucrative world of civil litigation. A public increasingly weary of hazing horror stories. Even the commercialization of anti-hazing measures through entities such as sponsored hotlines. These are the makings of risks any prudent organizations would seek to mitigate. When Greek letter organizations and institutions officially amended their policies to prohibit hazing, the media took note that we were turning the corner on the dangerous practices directly connected to pledging.

It would be unreasonable to gauge the success of anti-hazing measures by a zero incidents standard. Certainly, we do not apply this litmus test to other areas of law. However, one must not ignore that the presence of policies, hotlines, and other tools have not ended hazing. To the contrary, one might argue that policies came into existence, not as a deterrent, but rather as a means of plausible deniability to mitigate lawsuits.

Are there double standards in addressing hazing?

The FAMU tragedy has revealed the disparate treatment given to hazing between marching bands and traditional fraternities/sororities. Last summer, reports surfaced that Henry Kirby, Florida A&M University Dean of Students, had requested a stiffer suspension of the Marching 100 just three days before the fatal beating of Champion. In notes written by Kirby of a November 16 meeting and the Orlando Sentinel, Kirby recommended the imposition of “the Kappa effect” — referring to the 2006 long-term suspension handed out to FAMU’s chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi in response to hazing violations that involved pledges being beaten with wooden canes.

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“I explained that if we suspend the band like we did the KAPPAS that it would effectively stop all of this hazing,”
Henry Kirby,
FAMU Dean of Students

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Suspension of a marching band creates a noticeable absence during sporting and other major events. FAMU’s reluctance to impose a more severe penalty on the Marching 100, after having dealt with the university’s Kappa Alpha Psi chapter in a stern manner, points out glaring disparities that can open the door to future incidents. As questions surround the equitable treatment of laws in general society, we might ask the same of statutes targeted at college campuses where organizations cross, gender, race, operational category, etc.

As it turns out, double standards in hazing investigations and penalties are numerous. In 2008, The University of Georgia [UGA] came under fire for different applications of its anti-hazing policy. UGA had rigorously investigated and suspended Pi Kappa Alpha while rationalizing its non-responsiveness to direct evidence of hazing within the Club hockey team and Bulldogs football team.

More recently, Sigma Alpha Epsilon [SAE] President Michael Fancher cited dissimilar handling by Dartmouth College of hazing infractions committed by SAE and Alpha Phi Alpha. In a January 17 article published in The Darmouth campus newspaper, Fancher acknowledged that the college required both organizations to establish an advisory board to oversee their respective intake programs. However, Fancher noted that while the Office of Judicial Affairs’ website report of SAE’s violations was specific and detailed, its wording of Alpha’s violations was vague. On the non-descriptive nature of the “I can’t judge whether the punishment is fair or not, because I don’t know what happened.

The Association of Fraternal Leadership and Values [AFLV] pointed out the hypocrisy that exists relative to hazing when it looked at the reaction to the Dallas Cowboy Dez Bryant’s refusal to carry the shoulder pads of teammate Roy Williams. Said Bryant, “I’m not doing it. I feel like I was drafted to play football, not carry another player’s pads.” The response by NFL values icon, Herm Edwards, highlights the double standard, “Just go along with it, get it over with.” Mike Golic’s responses on the Mike and Mike in the Morning show were even more disturbing: “Dez says no to (innocent) hazing… Dez Bryant refuses chores of a lowly rookie”. If hazing is outlawed, one’s professional status does not trivialize the practice. It would be a miscarriage of justice to penalize an organization at Southern Methodist University, Texas, Baylor, or Texas A&M for practices that other non-collegiate organizations sanction without the threat of legal intervention. 

Can any measure end what the culture of hazing perpetuates?

Authorities charged 12 individuals in the Champion death. Whatever the outcome of legal proceedings, questions will remain as to how many band members were aware of hazing or directly participated in hazing rituals.

One can liken the pathology of hazing to that of a seriously-ill alcoholic. Rarely do the latter operate alone. Around them are friends, family members, business partners, neighbors, and others who routinely decide to be a part of the difficult solutions or co-dependent in what ultimately is a deeper burying of the problem. Campus organizations devise ways to skirt laws, violate organization policy, and skirt oversight. One process is referred to as “going underground”. This is tantamount to sneaking a fifth of liquor to a friend battling alcoholism, despite the demands of those around him who want to see him healed. Whatever affections one might have for the liquor, feeding the alcoholism will ultimately have no favorable conclusion.

Such is true with successive members into an organization who hide the hazing culture, marginalize its dangers, and worse, participate in it. Participants are not underground. Underground are Robert Chapman and Chad Meredith.

The Business of College Organizations 

Taking serious steps to end hazing means confronting the influence of student organizations on college campus. These organizations serve many needs of their respective institution, including:

  • Recruitment: Pick-up any college brochure. Conduct a site visit. Speak with alumni. It will not be long before fraternities and sororities are discussed. For impressionable teenagers, vibrant social groups are a key factor in college selections. Greek row is as much of the college landscape as libraries and laboratories. Colleges that pull h switch on local charters do so at the risk of effecting enrollment and thus, the financial health of the institution.ns that impact enrollment and thus, financial health of the institution.
  • Boosters: Campus organizations are a source of pride in an institution. Often they serve to motivate boosters. And motivated boosters translate into endowments, alumni foundation philanthropy, research grants, and a host of other benefits. Marching bands – where FAMU’s or Ohio State – are a powerful attractions. The reluctance of an institution to take severe punitive action is in-part connected to its vast networks of supporters consumed by school spirit (and not hazing concerns) during their trips to the campus.
  • Branding: Social organizations are an extension of an institution in the surrounding community in remote communities where such groups operate. When Temple University’s Sigma Chi or Zeta Phi Beta chapters participate in a community clean-up, food drive, or cancer research fundraiser in Philadelphia, this is a surrogate for Temple’s participation. Taking actions against organizations have enormous effect on the university’s posture outside the campus setting.

The above neither excuse institutions nor suggest they are indifferent to the problem of hazing inside college-chartered organizations. This simply points out some of the nuances inherent in this relationship. Institutions of higher learning have a vested interest in solving the hazing problem. And we will significantly turn the corner on the persistent problem of hazing when institutions access more stringent tools as deterrents and punitive measures. Below is a list of possible measures.

Six Measures to End Hazing on College Campuses

Some of the available measures to rid ourselves of hazing include:

1. Mandatory 5-year ban imposed on local organizations found guilty of hazing.

2. No exceptions policies that extend penalties to Greek letter, band, military, athletic, and other organizations.

3. Automatic expulsion from the college of all officers at chapters in violation of anti-hazing statutes.

4. Automatic expulsion of individuals who voluntarily subject themselves to hazing, including in “underground” and pre-intake programs.

5. Strict code of conduct provisions that bar college faculty from participating in specified activities. And immediate termination of faculty found guilty of code violations.

6. Required posting of details of hazing incidents over the past 5 years on college website, recruitment materials, etc.

Remembering Robert D. Champion

 

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POSTSCRIPT — A proud member of Kappa Alpha Psi, that will celebrate 34 years on May 26, 2013, I hold the experience as one of my life’s treasures. I am likewise proud that my chapter, Zeta, at The Ohio State University founded the Scroller Club. As such, I am compelled to close in this vein. The photos and videos in the article capture African Americans. However,hazing is not restricted to Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) or Black Greek Letter Organizations (BGLOs). Meredith is one of a number of whites injured or dead as a result of pledging predominantly white organizations. Further, the problem is not limited to Florida, but stretches across the country. Concentration on Florida in this article discusses incidents somehow connected to the 2005 Florida law — either events that led up to it or impacted by its passage. And finally, while the persons involved are males, hazing is likewise problematic in female organizations that have seen injuries and deaths. That said, by in large, the millions of members in these organizations give evidence that deaths are rare. Nonetheless, the practice of hazing should and must come to an end for the save of lives and organizations. And those who love our organizations must play a role in ending the practice of hazing.

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