The longtime director of Florida A&M University’s famed marching band announced his retirement Thursday, while a top state official urged the university to keep the band suspended while investigations of a drum major’s death continue.
Frank Brogan, the chancellor of Florida’s state university system, wrote a blunt letter to FAMU President James Ammons urging him to keep the band suspended. Ammons was expected to discuss the band at a special meeting of the university board of trustees on Monday.
Former state Sen. Al Lawson, a FAMU alumnus from Tallahassee, said he believed Ammons was leaning toward keeping the band suspended.
“There is a considerable amount of pressure being placed on the university and the trustees about the band being able to perform in the fall,” Lawson said. “But I think in the light of everything, though the university is going to have to go in a new direction.”
Lawson said long-time director Julian White’s decision to retire instead of fighting to win his job back gives the university a chance to recruit new leadership for the band.
Eleven FAMU band members face felony hazing charges stemming from Robert Champion’s death in November. Two others face misdemeanor counts. Ammons suspended the band soon after Champion’s death and tried to fire White. White’s dismissal was placed on hold while the criminal investigation unfolded, but he insisted that he did nothing wrong and fought for months to get reinstated.
Champion died aboard a bus outside an Orlando hotel following a FAMU football game. His death revealed a culture of hazing within the band.
But according to information the university turned over to its board this week, three of those charged with Champion’s death weren’t FAMU students at the time.
Ammons also sent a two-page letter to trustees explaining that at the start of the fall 2011 semester there were 457 people on the band roster, but it turns out that 101 of them were not students at FAMU.
A total of 52 people — including 51 band members and one cheerleader — had been previously enrolled at the school but were not enrolled at the time of Champion’s death.
Another 49 were listed as students at nearby Tallahassee Community College or Florida State University but they were not enrolled in a FAMU band class, nor did the university know for sure if they were enrolled at the other schools.
White’s attorney contended that only those who presented band officials with a class schedule at the start of the fall semester were given a Marching 100 uniform. Chuck Hobbs, however, said it was not up to the Department of Music to verify the enrollment.
In his May 8 letter to trustees, Ammons explained that he is having the university “internal crisis management team” speak to faculty, students, as well as boosters and alumni about what conditions should be met before the Marching 100 can return.
Pam Champion, the mother of Robert Champion, has said that the band should be disbanded so the university can “clean house.” She and the family’s attorney contend there is a vast effort among students and others to cover up who is responsible for her son’s death.
An attorney for Champion’s parents said White’s resignation was a step in the right direction.
“The university has to be very deliberate and committed to eradicate the culture of hazing and it’s going to be a long process,” Chestnut said. “But it’s a great first step.”
While arrests have been made in the Champion case there is still an ongoing criminal investigation into the finances of the band, as well as a probe by the state university system into whether top officials at the university ignored past warnings about hazing.
Brogan told Ammons that “reinstating the band prior to these efforts being resolved would side-step efforts under way, which could impact the band’s long-term survival.”
He added that both he and the state panel that oversees the overall university system were worried that “concerns continue to mount regarding the ever-increasing body of issues that harm the institution, its students, and therefore our state university system as a whole.”
The Champion family has already told FAMU it plans to sue the university. FAMU itself set up a task force to look at hazing, although the panel has not met since a flare-up over whether it should follow the state’s open meetings laws. Several members have since resigned.