FAMU Ex-Band Director claims he is not responsible for hazing death

Julian White, Jacksonville native and former FAMU band director, claims he is not responsible for the hazing related death of band member Robert Champion in November, according to a Florida Times Union report. Champion was severely beaten aboard a chartered bus after a FAMU football game as part of a hazing ritual and died of resulting injuries. While the members of the band who carried out the hazing surely share the brunt of the responsibility for Champion’s death, they are not alone in sharing responsibility.

In the state of Florida, it is a third degree felony to intentionally or recklessly engage in hazing that results in serious bodily injury or death, and a first degree misdemeanor to do the same when it merely creates a substantial risk of physical injury or death. These charges are in addition to others that could flow from such activities, such a battery or murder. In addition to outlawing hazing, Florida statutes also require that any post secondary education institution whose students receive state student financial assistance must adopt a written anti-hazing policy and under such policy must adopt rules prohibiting students or other persons associated with any student organization from engaging in hazing. Schools also must provide a program for the enforcement of such rules and must adopt appropriate penalties for violations of such rules, to be administered by the person at the institution responsible for the sanctioning of such organizations, usually the dean. The institution must provide a copy of such policy, rules, and penalties to each student enrolled in that institution and must include such policy, rules, and penalties in the bylaws of every organization operating under the sanction of the institution. This is where things get sticky.

FAMU is renowned for its marching band. However, it is also renowned for its culture of hazing, especially within the band. Champion’s death is only one incident in a string of hazing occurrences spanning decades. While surely the school has a written hazing policy and penalties for breaking that policy, it appears that a lack of enforcement has resulted in a blatant and open hazing culture. This is not the fault of students but rather administrators, and in the case of the marching band, the former director Julian White. The band brings in large amounts of revenue for the university and is an important recruiting tool. Perhaps this is why after repeated hazing violations, very little was done in the area of band sanctions and suspensions. Florida statutes provide that organizations that are in blatant violation of university anti-hazing policies may be suspended and prohibited from operation on campus and under university sanction. FAMU has since done just that, however too little, too late. It took the death of a student for the university to put its hazing policy before its famed band and all the benefits that sprung from it, and this inaction could result in liability for university officials, both civilly and criminally.

Another troubling factor in the case is that by statute, the university must provide copies of its hazing policy, rules, and penalties to each student enrolled in the institution. This creates a problem, as FAMU has been, for some time, allowing former students and non-students to participate in the band. White did take partial responsibility for this failure to ensure band members were actually students of FAMU, and in turn had been given copies of the hazing policy and educated on the dangers of hazing. Compounding the issue, two of the band members being charged with Champion’s death were not FAMU students and were in no way eligible to participate in band activities. This failure on the part of the band director, and in enforcement of hazing penalties on the part of university administrators could lead to charges of culpable negligence, a first degree misdemeanor when it results in injury. However, Florida statutes provide that in the event that culpable negligence results in death, as in this case, the negligent parties may be charged with manslaughter, a second degree felony. To make matters worse, university faculty have been accused of participating in hazing rituals themselves, although not specifically in the Champion incident. Truly the hazing problem runs deep and culpability goes far beyond the students, and non-student band members, who actually carried out the hazing ritual. At this time no charges have been filed against White or school administrators, however they most certainly could face serious implications for their failure to act in preventing the death of Robert Champion. White has resigned, and the university has suspended the band, both surely in attempt to distance themselves from the case.

If you or a loved one is accused of hazing, or any other violent crime, call The Mussallem Law Firm, PA at (904) 365-5200 for a free consultation. Our Duval County violent crimes lawyer is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

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