Florida A&M fires band director

Updated: November 25, 2011, 11:32 AM ET
ESPN.com news services

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The longtime director of Florida A&M University's famed marching band was fired Wednesday as the fallout from a drum major's suspected hazing death deepened.

Florida's governor said state investigators would join the probe and the college announced an independent review led by a former state attorney general.

Band member Robert Champion, 26, was found unresponsive on a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel on Saturday night after the school's football team lost to rival Bethune-Cookman. Champion, of Atlanta, was vomiting and had complained he couldn't breathe before he collapsed. Investigators believe hazing occurred before 911 was called.

Champion's cause of death wasn't known, and a spokeswoman with the medical examiner's office said it could take up to three months to learn exactly what killed him.

Attorney Christopher Chestnut says Champion's family will sue the university. Family members were spending the holiday weekend planning Champion's funeral, Chestnut said

Florida A&M did not immediately comment on Chestnut's remarks.

On Tuesday, the university president shuttered the marching band and the rest of the music department's performances as band director Julian White stood by.

White, who graduated from the school with a music education degree, didn't comment at the news conference and a telephone message left at his home Wednesday was not immediately returned. He has 10 days to respond to his termination.

White became a faculty member at the school in 1972, according to the university's website, and his bands consistently received superior ratings in marching and concert. The Marching 100 band has performed at several Super Bowls and represented the U.S. in Paris at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.

Hazing cases in marching bands have cropped up over the years, particularly at historically black colleges, where a spot in the marching band is coveted and the bands are revered almost as much as the sports teams for which they play.

In 2008, two first-year French horn players in Southern University's marching band were beaten so badly they had to be hospitalized. A year later, 20 members of Jackson State University's band were suspended after being accused of hazing.

One of the worst cases occurred in 2001 and involved former Florida A&M band member Marcus Parker, who suffered kidney damage because of a beating with a paddle.

Three years earlier, Ivery Luckey, a clarinet player from Ocala, Fla., said he was paddled around 300 times, sending him to the hospital and leaving him physically and emotionally scarred.

Some 20 band members were suspended and Luckey eventually wound up filing a lawsuit against the state Board of Regents. According to reports, Luckey settled for $50,000 for his injuries.

Retired sociology professor and hazing expert Richard Sigal was hired by Luckey's attorneys to testify at the trial. Sigal, who has held anti-hazing workshops at high schools and colleges, told The Associated Press that he previously found an acceptance of hazing at the university.

"There was a hazing subculture that existed, that everyone knew about, and everyone turned away from and didn't do anything about. And that was at the core of what the issue was at A&M," he said.

In the current case, no charges have been filed, but any death involving hazing is a third-degree felony in Florida.

Republican Gov. Rick Scott said he believed Champion's death warranted help from the Florida Department of Law Enforcement.

Scott said he wanted investigators "to assure that the circumstances leading to Mr. Champion's death become fully known, and that if there are individuals directly or indirectly responsible for this death, they are appropriately brought to justice and held accountable."

School president Dr. James Ammons also announced the formation of an independent task force to investigate Champion's death. It will be chaired by former state attorney general Bob Butterworth and former Tallahassee police chief Walt McNeil.

Information from The Associated Press was used in this report.

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