TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The immediate future of Florida A&M University’s president is on the line Monday morning as the board of trustees considers whether to suspend him while authorities investigate the hazing death of a band member.
The meeting comes three days after the state medical examiner ruled that 26-year-old drum major Robert Champion’s Nov. 19 death was a homicide. Officials say he was beaten so severely that he bled internally and went into shock. He died within an hour.
School President James Ammons and other university leaders have been criticized for not doing enough to stop a culture of hazing within the university’s famed “Marching 100” band. Band director Julian White has been placed on temporary leave and the board publicly reprimanded Ammons.
Florida Gov. Rick Scott suggested to university leaders that Ammons be suspended but said he’d abide by the board’s decision.
Students have largely stood by both leaders. Students protested outside the governor’s mansion Thursday to show support for Ammons, and the president of the national alumni association at a news conference Sunday contested Scott’s involvement and recommend Ammons not be suspended.
“This is under investigation,” Tommy Mitchell said. “How do you make a determination before all the evidence is in?”
Scott said in a statement that he is not singling out FAMU and called on all universities in the state to examine their hazing and harassment policies. He said he was offering his opinion and counsel regarding Ammons.
“I merely suggested it would be wise for Dr. Ammons to step aside until these investigations are completed,” Scott said. “It is up to the FAMU Board of Trustees and Dr. Ammons to determine how to proceed. I have not and will not try to influence their decision. Like all other Floridians, I will abide by the decisions made.”
Champion died after falling unconscious on a bus outside an Orlando hotel after the school’s football team lost to rival Bethune-Cookman. Witnesses told emergency dispatchers he had been vomiting.
The medical examiner’s office in Orlando found that Champion had bruises to his chest, arms, shoulder and back and internal bleeding. No charges have been filed.
Champion’s death exposed years of hazing that has plagued the band and left several students injured. In 1998, Ivery Luckey, a clarinet player from Ocala, Fla., was hospitalized with kidney damage after being paddled as part of an initiation to become a member of a group known as “The Clones.” Three years later, band member Marcus Parker was also hospitalized with kidney damage after being paddled.
Ammons, a FAMU alumni, became president in 2007 at a time when the university was under considerable distress. There had been four presidents within the previous six years and an audit in 2007 uncovered 35 findings, including $4.5 million in unaccounted sports tickets and lost equipment. The university was placed under probation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
Under Ammons’ leadership, the university’s accreditation was restored and its finances improved. An audit done two years later found the university still needed to do a better job of paying bills on time and keeping a closer eye on employee use of state-owned cell phones, but those problems paled in comparison to the previous report.
“He brought us through that,” Mitchell said. “There’s no reason for us to believe he can’t bring us through this.”
But hazing continued to be a problem. White has provided letters of suspension issued to dozens of band members for hazing, including many of which Ammons was reportedly provided a copy.
Less than two 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 the beating.
And two days before Champion died, White sent a letter to alumni, urging them not to “return and perpetuate the myth of various sectional names.”
“You should not return and look down on people who follow university regulations by not participating in sub-organizations,” White wrote, urging alumni to help him eliminate “all vestiges of hazing” in the band.
Ammons suspended the band after Champion’s death, dismissed White and expelled four students in connection with the hazing. White was later placed on temporary leave and the students were allowed to attend class after state authorities urged the university not to take disciplinary action before the investigation was complete.
The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges has warned Scott’s push to suspend Ammons could affect the school’s accreditation because of “undue influence” on the board from outside.