TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida A&M University’s famed marching band – tarnished by the beating death of one of its drum majors – appears unlikely to take the field once again anytime soon.
A new set of revelations this week that more than 100 band members weren’t even FAMU students at the time of Robert Champion’s death may have proven to be the turning point in deciding the band’s fate.
The news prompted a stunning turn of events on Thursday as first the longtime director of the band announced his retirement and then a top state university official urged FAMU’s president to keep the band suspended while investigations continue.
FAMU President James Ammons is expected to discuss the fate of the band at a special meeting on Monday.
Solomon Badger, the chairman of the FAMU board, said he hopes that Ammons will announce that he is keeping the suspension intact for the near future.
“I would like to hear him say the band is suspended indefinitely until sufficient time has lapsed and enough has been done to make sure that this doesn’t happen again,” Badger said. “The time to fix the band would not be while the band is on the field.”
The Marching 100 has had a rich history as it has played at Super Bowls and in inauguration parades. But last week eleven FAMU band members were charged with felony hazing related to Champion’s death in November. Two others were charged with misdemeanors. Champion died following a harrowing ritual on a bus where he was allegedly hit and struck by fellow band members.
Ammons suspended the band soon after Champion’s death and tried to fire band director Julian White. White’s dismissal was placed on hold while the criminal investigation unfolded, but he insisted that he did nothing wrong and fought for months to get reinstated.
But on Thursday the 71-year-old White announced through his attorneys that he has decided to retire and spend more time with his family.
White’s decision came the same week that Ammons told trustees that three of those charged with Champion’s death weren’t FAMU students at the time of the incident.
Ammons also sent a two-page letter to trustees explaining that at the start of the fall 2011 semester there were 457 people on the band roster, but it turns out that 101 of them were not students at FAMU.
A total of 52 people — including 51 band members and one cheerleader — had been previously enrolled at the school but were not enrolled at the time of Champion’s death.
Another 49 were listed as students at nearby Tallahassee Community College or Florida State University but they were not enrolled in a FAMU band class, nor did the university know for sure if they were enrolled at the other schools.
White’s attorney contended that only those who presented band officials with a class schedule at the start of the fall semester were given a Marching 100 uniform. Chuck Hobbs, however, said it was not up to the Department of Music to verify the enrollment.
The news about the enrollment status of the band members, however, comes while state law-enforcement authorities continue to investigate the band’s finances.
Frank Brogan, the chancellor of the State University System of Florida, wrote a blunt letter Thursday urging Ammons to keep the band suspended while the investigations continue. The state university system has its own probe into whether FAMU officials ignored past warnings about hazing.
Brogan told Ammons that “reinstating the band prior to these efforts being resolved would side-step efforts under way, which could impact the band’s long-term survival.”
He added that both he and the state panel that oversees the overall university system were worried that “concerns continue to mount regarding the ever-increasing body of issues that harm the institution, its students, and therefore our state university system as a whole.”
Ammons did not respond to requests for comment on Thursday, but he did put out a statement saying that he wished White “well in his retirement.
“Given his position as department chair and director of bands, we must focus on moving forward with changes to the music department and the marching band,” Ammons said.
In his May 8 letter to trustees, Ammons explained that he is having the university “internal crisis management team” speak to faculty, students, as well as boosters and alumni about what conditions should be met before the Marching 100 can return.
Pam Champion, the mother of Robert Champion, has said that 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.
An attorney for Champion’s parents said White’s resignation was a step in the right direction.
“The university has to be very deliberate and committed to eradicate the culture of hazing and it’s going to be a long process,” Chestnut said. “But it’s a great first step.”
Former state Sen. Al Lawson, a FAMU alumnus from Tallahassee, said he believed Ammons was leaning toward keeping the band suspended.
“There is a considerable amount of pressure being placed on the university and the trustees about the band being able to perform in the fall,” Lawson said. “But I think in the light of everything, though the university is going to have to go in a new direction.”
Lawson said White’s decision to retire instead of fighting to win his job back gives the university a chance to recruit new leadership for the band.
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.
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