Both local police and university officials are looking into the mysterious death of 26-year-old drum major Robert Champion.
Florida A&M University’s band is currently under investigation and all band performances have been suspended after a student died over the weekend in what authorities believe was a hazing-related incident.
The band’s suspension came down Tuesday from university president James Ammons, who also announced that the university would launch its own investigation into the student’s death. According to the mandate, “any and all performances and engagements for bands and other ensembles under the auspices of the music department, including the Marching 100,” have been placed on suspension until the investigations are complete.
"The purpose of this review is not to establish culpability of individual band members in this particular case, but rather to determine whether there are patterns of behavior by the band — or members of it — that should be addressed at the institutional level," Ammons said in a statement.
The incident in question occurred Saturday night after a game in Orlando when 26-year-old drum major Robert Champion became ill and died after returning to his hotel room, said the Orange County Sheriff's Office. Although the cause of death is still unknown, from their preliminary investigation, authorities seem certain that hazing was involved.
"Any death that occurs as the result of hazing is a third-degree felony," Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings said Tuesday. "Anyone who participates in such events can be criminally charged."
Whatever the outcome, both investigations may have the potential to change the culture of the historic band forever. One aim of Ammons’ university investigation is "to determine if there are any unauthorized and questionable activities associated with the culture of the Marching 100,” and despite the school’s strict anti-hazing policy, Ammons confirmed that at least 30 band members were let go this semester because of possible involvement in hazing.
If confirmed, the specter of institutionalized hazing is likely to damage the glowing image of the band, which represented Florida at President Obama's inauguration parade in 2009 and is widely renowned. Founded in 1892, FAMU’s band boasts that it is the creator of "not less than 30 innovative techniques which have become standard operating procedures for many high school and collegiate marching band programs throughout the nation," according to its official website.
"We are in shock," band director Dr. Julian White said in a statement. "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."
(Photo: JOSEPH BROWN III/FAMU STAFF)