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Family to sue FAMU following drum major's death

12:10 PM, Nov 26, 2011   |    comments
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  • Robert Champion
  • A letter sent to Dr. Julian White informing him of his separation from FAMU on Wednesday.
    

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- An attorney says the family of a Florida A&M University drum major who died of suspected hazing will sue the school.

Attorney Christopher Chestnut says the family of Robert Champion is spending the holiday weekend planning Champion's funeral. The 26-year-old drum major died last Saturday following the Florida Classic football game in Orlando. A Decatur native, Champion graduated from Southwest DeKalb High School.

Chestnut says Champion's family wants to raise awareness of the issue of hazing in college bands. The school didn't immediately comment on the attorney's remarks.

News of the lawsuit comes just days after the school's loss of its longtime band director Dr. Julian White. 

FAMU president Dr. James Ammons announced Wednesday that the university would fire White in the wake of Champion's death.

A letter sent to White from Ammon's office cited "alleged misconduct and/or incompetence involving confirmed reports and allegations of hazing."

RELATED: Former FAMU band member: Directors knew about hazing

"We weren't able to stop it, and so that's why we thought that the sanction was appropriate at this time," Ammons told CNN.

"While Dr. White has had a distinguished career in music education and administration within the university as director of bands, I did not feel there was competence involving reporting allegations of hazing within the Department of Music and the Marching 100," Ammons told the Tallahassee Democrat. 

White has since hired an attorney, who is demanding the now-former director be reinstated. 11Alive obtained a letter sent by attorney Chuck Hobbs to Dr. Ammons, outlining White's actions against hazing, but saying the school did not provide enough "support" for those efforts.

"There has been little uniformity in discipline in the form of University-wide suspensions or expulsions," the letter stated.

White said Ammons gave him the choice to resign or be fired. 

Ammons, an FAMU graduate, became band director in 1998 and has been on the school's music faculty for nearly 40 years.

According to the Capitol News Service in Tallhassee, White is a union member, and the university will have to wait until Dec. 22 to actually separate him from the university, in order to give him enough time to respond.

Ammons' letter placed White on administrative leave with pay until the official Dec. 22 firing date.

On Tuesday, Ammons announced that the school would form an independent task force to investigate Champion's death, along with any "unauthorized activities" associated with the Marching 100. The school president said FAMU's "band, staff, students and history" will all be subject to investigation.

On Wednesday, Florida Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter to the commissioner of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, Gerald Bailey, asking the FDLE to investigate Champion's death and the circumstances surrounding it.

Ammons told the Democrat that he was looking forward to the FDLE's involvement in the case.

"We want answers," he told the Democrat. "I welcome FDLE to this investigation to get to the bottom of this."

Since Champion's death Saturday, blogs and social media sites have been flooded with posts speculating that Champion's death may be connected with hazing.

Ammons has asked people to stop engaging in rumors, but also acknowleded that several band members have been released from the band this semester because of possible participation in hazing.

"Hazing is illegal, and it's something that should not happen," he said. "I am committed to making certain that we end this practice."

In Florida, hazing is a third degree felony. Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings has said he suspects hazing is involved in Champion's death and that charges could be forthcoming.

A FAMU student and former band member who asked not to be identified, told the Democrat that groups within the band haze as an initiation for new members. The student said there was a myriad of band fraternities and some have groups within groups.

The student went on to say inter-band fraternities, including a clarinet section called "The Clones" and an Atlanta-based group called the "Red Dawgs Organization" are responsible for the majority of the hazing in the band.

According to the student's statements to the Democrat, Champion, who was a clarinet player before becoming drum major, was not a part of "The Clones."

Champion had been vomiting and complained he couldn't breathe shortly before he collapsed.

Friends called 911 and he was transported to Doctor Phillips Hospital, where he was pronounced dead. Authorities said they did not initially suspect foul play.

The results of an autopsy performed Monday were inconclusive.

(The Tallahassee Democrat contributed to this report.)

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