The Miami Herald | EDITORIAL

Justice for Robert Champion

 

HeraldEd@MiamiHerald.com

Finally, proper justice is coming for those allegedly involved in the death of Robert Champion, Jr. Many wanted to think so in May when prosecutors filed third-degree felony hazing charges against a dozen former Florida A&M students involved in the horrible act that led to his death.

Now, it’s clear that prosecutors’ first sweep of the case did not do justice to Mr. Champion’s memory. On Monday, they wisely increased the charge to manslaughter, which carries a penalty of up to 15 years in prison. That’s more than twice the six-year maximum for felony hazing.

The facts of the case demanded the stronger charge. Mr. Champion, a popular band major, died after being savagely beaten aboard a chartered bus during a hazing ritual in November 2011 after the famed FAMU band — the Marching 100 — dazzled the crowd at a football game. The assault was so severe that the 26-year-old had bruises throughout his upper body; he died of internal bleeding.

The dozen band members accused in his death are former students. A court will determine their guilt or innocence. But at least for now, the new charges will serve as a strong deterrent for any student thinking about getting involved with hazing, whether at FAMU or another educational institution. Indeed, Mr. Champion’s case is proof that, taken too far, hazing can have deadly consequences.

Perhaps that’s what administrators at the University of Central Florida were hoping to avoid when they suspended most fraternities and sororities’ activities after graphic photos emerged showing pledges chugging alcohol. Their quick and decisive action might have saved a life.

In Mr. Champion’s case, prosecutors should not stop their investigation now that charges have been filed against the students. Report after report has shown that school officials were well aware that FAMU had a major hazing problem and decided against decisive action. Some would say that they decided against taking any action at all.

Had they acted, few would disagree that Mr. Champion might be alive today.

A report by the Florida Board of Governors inspector general’s office said the school lacked internal controls to detect or prevent hazing. And it cited failures to communicate among top officials responsible for curtailing the practice. Even more damming, the report found that recommendations made in 1998 to prevent hazing were not followed.

The topic of hazing even came up at a meeting shortly before the band left for the Florida Classic game against rival Bethune-Cookman, where Mr. Champion was fatally hazed. Of course, school officials remember what was said at the meeting differently.

Regardless, the Marching 100 traveled to the game and Mr. Champion lost his life.

President James Ammons subsequently lost his job, as did the band director. Many are wondering whether that’s punishment enough.

Were administrators asleep at the wheel?

That’s a question prosecutors should answer and hold those responsible accountable to the fullest extent of the law. It’s one thing to identify and prosecute students for their irresponsible and reckless behavior.

But the environment that supported such dysfunction was created not by them but an administration that shut its eyes to a problem that ended in the death of a promising student. That ought to help guide the state attorney’s investigation.

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