Editorials

Message received, finally

IN OCTOBER: Robert Champion Jr.’s parents, mother Pam Champion, second right, and father Robert Champion, right, listen as the verdict after a jury found Dante Martin guilty of manslaughter in the fatal hazing of the FAMU drum major.
IN OCTOBER: Robert Champion Jr.’s parents, mother Pam Champion, second right, and father Robert Champion, right, listen as the verdict after a jury found Dante Martin guilty of manslaughter in the fatal hazing of the FAMU drum major. MCT

Scroll to the bottom of Florida A&M University’s home page and there, under Quick Links, is one that says, “Stop Hazing.”

Those two words say that FAMU has gotten serious about confronting the scourge of violence and intimidation that go along with “belonging,” with being accepted. The school can proudly cite progress in keeping its students safe from hazing.

Last week, former student Dante Martin was sentenced to more than six years in prison in the 2011 beating death of Robert Champion, 26, a FAMU band member who died after a brutal hazing ritual went off the tracks. Martin is the first of 15 former members of the band to stand trial in the case. Prosecutors said that he took the lead in the smacking, beating and pummeling that some students at FAMU — and other academic institutions across the country — endure just to belong to the clique, in this case, the legendary Marching 100.

Mr. Champion, from Decatur, Ga., was brutalized and killed at the hands of irresponsible band mates while on a bus trip. The death, of course, was the worst of it. But the fallout was significant, too: FAMU’s president, James Ammons, resigned; the band leader lost his job; the band was suspended for two years; and FAMU showed that it had learned little, if anything at all, for a hazing incident 10 years earlier.

In that case, trumpet player Marcus Parker won a $1.8-million lawsuit against other band members after he was paddled so severely that he suffered renal failure. Unfortunately, that wasn’t enough to keep excessive hazing rituals from remaining FAMU’s dirty little secret, to which faculty and administrators — the adults — turned a blind eye.

At the time of Mr. Champion’s death, 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 held FAMU’s top officials responsible for failing to curtail the practice. It also found that the school had not followed recommendations made in 1998 to prevent hazing.

The message, though late, has gotten through — to the extent that other institutions in Florida’s State University System have adopted similar rules. Bryan Smith, FAMU’s special assistant to the vice president of student affairs, is spearheading the school’s anti-hazing initiatives — of which there are many, he told the Editorial Board:

Training seminars for all campus organizations, not just the band, fraternities and sororities; outreach to local school boards, wanting the message to filter down to students considering attending FAMU; all students must sign an anti-hazing pledge at registration; and, Mr. Smith said, he keeps records of complaints and incidents — substantiated or not, on campus or not. “In early 2013, there was an increase in reporting,” Mr. Smith said. “We think that people better understood what hazing is, there was a comfort level. We created an online reporting mechanism, reporting can be anonymous.” Even more encouraging is that students themselves are stepping up, giving their input in order to refine training. “We’re getting buy-in,” he said.

The laudatory results of safety audits conducted in September by the State University System’s Board of Governors validate FAMU’s turnaround. These initiatives are long overdue. It just sad that it took Robert Champion’s demise to give students, recruits and their parents greater peace of mind that his hazing death would be the last.

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