TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The father of a freshman in Florida A&M University’s famed marching band emailed the school’s president in 2007 after getting a series of panic-stricken phone calls. The son never described exactly what was happening, but he made it clear he feared getting beaten.
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“I feel that my son’s future could be in jeopardy,” Donovan Crosby wrote to James Ammons in the email, which is part of public records obtained jointly by The Associated Press and Tallahassee Democrat.
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Hundreds of pages of records show years of repeated warnings about brutal hazing passed without any serious response from the school’s leadership until last November’s beating death of drum major Robert Champion.
A staff member replied to the email, so Crosby called the next day to talk to Ammons directly. Crosby said at first the president reassured him, then repeated the standard line that the school doesn’t condone hazing.
Crosby said his son left FAMU after two years and has since struggled with personal problems. He only recently re-enrolled at another college in Florida.
“It was the worst decision in his life to go to FAMU,” Crosby said.
Police files show that since 2007 nearly two dozen incidents involving the band, fraternities and other student groups have been investigated. But it wasn’t until Champion’s death that the band director was initially fired, the band was suspended, student clubs were halted from recruiting new members and an anti-hazing task force was assembled.
Crosby and numerous other parents over the last several years wrote or called university administrators, band officials or police begging someone at FAMU to keep their son or daughter safe.
“After 1 month at FAMU he is broken, indecisive, sad, confused and he wants to come home,” parent Cheryl Walker emailed Ammons. ” … My son will not quit school, you will not break him, I will see to that but FAMU has lost a hell of a young man and after this semester he will not be back. I pray that GOD will give the administration wisdom and courage to stand up against the stupid idiotic practices that go on (at) this FAMU campus.”
Emails show that the hazing was clearly known as a problem to various school officials.
William Hudson, a FAMU administrator, wrote to then-vice president for student affairs Roland Gaines in 2009 and asked “Do you think we can have the police talk to the band and put the fear of GOD in them? Even ride by the field during practice?”
Gaines replied that the school’s main attorney “met with the band and placed the fear of his office in them. He does this every year. A lot of this alleged activity may not be occurring during the organized practices; but again, it may.”
The school held mandatory sessions with students each fall, warning them that hazing is a felony in Florida and requiring students to sign a form acknowledging the consequences.
The warnings appeared to do little to change the culture. Many police investigations into hazing went nowhere because students stonewalled and refused to cooperate. Crosby’s own son refused to talk to police. Even sometimes when arrests were made, the charges would eventually get dropped.
One band member told a police investigator in 2006 that “I don’t want to prosecute because I know that it will get worse. This is what I want to do so it doesn’t matter because I can defend myself.”
Police investigations into hazing were so commonplace that FAMU police even had a “band hazing questionnaire” that it submitted to students. And it appears that hazing wasn’t just limited to current band members. Julian White – band director at the time of Champion’s death – wrote an email to band alumni asking them to refrain from hazing current students.
Champion’s death was the latest chapter of violent hazing involving the Marching 100. In 1998, Ivery Luckey, a clarinet player from Ocala was hospitalized with kidney damage after being paddled in the initiation to join a group known as “The Clones.” Three years later, band member Marcus Parker was hospitalized with kidney damage after being paddled.
A few weeks before Champion’s death, band member Bria Hunter was hospitalized with a broken leg and blood clots in what authorities say was another act of hazing. Three band members have been charged. In September, more aspiring “Clones” members were punched and paddled, leading to charges in January against four band members.
Even after those serious incidents, the emails and records show, the band hazing continued and the school couldn’t – or wouldn’t – stop it. At the same time, some professors insisted that hazing had been eradicated.
Music professor Lindsay Sarjeant boasted to a professor at the University of Southern California in the fall of 2010 that “I’m happy to tell you that we were very successful in completely eradicating hazing from the Florida A&M University Band. It was hard and took several years to change the mind set of the non significance of hazing in any form … At FAMU, the consequences are too severe to engage in any form of hazing, mental and physical.”
Ammons and other FAMU officials refused to answer questions for this story, citing the advice of attorneys as the university awaits the outcome of ongoing investigations. The panel that oversees the state university system has also launched its own investigation The Board of Governors wants to know whether FAMU officials ignored past warnings about hazing.
Champion’s death remains under investigation by state and Orange County law-enforcement authorities and no arrests have been made.
The 26-year-old died from a shock caused by severe bleeding following a hazing ritual that occurred on a bus outside an Orlando hotel where the band was staying. It came hours after Florida A&M’s annual football game against archrival Bethune-Cookman, which features a halftime Battle of the Bands.
Ammons fired band director White after Champion’s death. White hired an attorney and fired back, producing thick stacks of letters that showed he routinely suspended band members and that he forwarded this letters to top officials. His dismissal was put on hold at the urging of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, which is investigating Champion’s death along with Orange County authorities.
School officials contend that they did not receive any recent letters until White was initially dismissed by the school. Public records turned over by the university so far have not included any correspondence from top administrators responding to White in recent years.
A batch of emails, however, does show that on Nov. 14 White forwarded to police and top administrators – including Ammons – a report that discussed hazing allegations involving members of the trombone section. The report details how band members were suspended from performing in a Veterans Day parade and how they argued with an assistant professor contending that they had done nothing wrong.
Some parents, such as Cheryl Walker back in 2009, did put part of the blame on White. She told administrators that he had not responded to her text message for help. Police files show that in 2002 an investigator for FAMU police chided White, contending he had “hampered” an investigation because he delayed before he reported an incident.
White, in his own words, expressed frustration about hazing after he was forced to suspend band members last November.
“Don’t want a Joe Paterno Penn State problem at FAMU,” White wrote in a Nov. 11 email to a friend who was a band director at a Panhandle high school.
Eight days later Robert Champion would be dead.