Hazing Probed in Florida A&M Drum Major's Death

Florida A &M suspended performances of famed marching band.

ByABC News
November 23, 2011, 8:08 AM

Nov. 23, 2011— -- Florida A&M University has suspended all performances of its famed marching band as police and the school investigate allegations that hazing contributed to the death of drum major Robert Champion this past weekend.

Champion, 26, died shortly after performing with the band during halftime of the school's football game last Saturday night. He was found dead on the band's bus.

Ginette Rodriguez, a spokeswoman for the Orange County, Fla., sheriff's office, told ABC News that investigators are conducting interviews with members of the school band, football team, and others who were at the Florida Classic football game that night.

Sheriff Jerry Demings said Tuesday that the investigation "indicates that hazing was involved in the events that occurred prior to the 911 call for assistance."

"Anyone who participates in such events can be criminally charged," he said, adding that hazing is a third degree felony in Florida.

Dr. James Ammons, president of the school officially known as Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, suspended the band's performances while the university creates a task force to look into reports of "unauthorized and questionable" activities within the 375-member marching band.

Ammons said the task force would "determine if there are patterns of inappropriate behavior within the culture of the band."

READ TRANSCRIPT: FAMU President James Ammons Speaks With ABC News' Matt Gutman

Champion was found unresponsive on the bus in Orlando Saturday night, and later declared dead at Dr. Phillips Hospital in Orlando. Initial results from the medical examiner were inconclusive, Rodriguez said. The sheriff's department and school are awaiting autopsy results.

Friends of Champion told investigators the drum major had trouble breathing before he lost consciousness.

Parents of other band members told the Orlando Sentinel that hazing had been a problem for the entire season, and that they were told by their children Champion had died as part of a ritual to earn respect of senior drum majors.

Julie Lopez, whose son is in the band, said her son had been told Champion was "crossing bus C," a ritual where new band members are beaten as they walk from the back to the front of the bus.

"Everyone was talking about it," Lopez told the paper. "It was a planned event."

Police would not comment on what type of hazing may have taken place aboard the bus.

The university has had trouble with hazing in the past, with at least seven reports of hazing to campus public safety over the past decade, according to university spokeswoman Sharon Saunders.

The school has an extensive anti-hazing policy posted on its website, with punishments including suspension and expulsion.

In 2004, a former band member won a $1.8 million lawsuit against other band members over an incident in which he was allegedly beaten with paddling boards so badly that his kidneys shut down temporarily.

Champion was one of six drum majors for the band, which had been selected to march during President Obama's inauguration.

FAMU Band Director Julian White was quoted in the school's newspaper saying, "He was a very fine drum major who was of excellent character and very trustworthy. I had not told him yet, but he was slated to be the head drum major next year."

Champion's father, also named Robert, said his son was in good shape, WSBTV.com reported.

"I think he was in pretty good condition. He ate and he trained and had no medical condition that I know of," Champion said of his son.

Pamela Champion, Robert's mother, said she is waiting to hear back from the medical examiner before speaking publicly about her son.