Florida A&M University's prestigious marching band, scarred by the hazing death of one of its drum majors, won't be taking the field for at least another year.
At a school where people attend football games just for the Marching 100 halftime show, the impact on enrollment and the school community can't immediately be measured, but students and alumni said it's a move they support to make sure hazing is rooted out.
"What do we do in that one-year process to make sure these things do not happen again?" asked 25-year-old Travis Roberts, who has played clarinet in the band for four years. "We lack consistency at times, and this is something that needs to change. … No one has taken accountability for what has happened. This thing didn't start only five years ago. This thing has happened the past 50 years."
FAMU President James Ammons today said that the band, which has performed at Super Bowls and in inauguration parades, should not take the field again until a new band director is hired and new band rules are adopted. Among the rules being considered: Academic standards for band members, more chaperones on out-of-town trips and limits on how long a student can remain in the band.
Ammons also said that it is "critical" that all ongoing investigations into the band be wrapped up before moving forward. He said he will re-evaluate his decision next year, but made no promises when the band would return.
"Although the band is a part of the university, this decision was for Florida A&M University," Ammons said. "I just felt after listening to all the advice and all the positions that people had this decision was in the best interests of the long-term growth and development of Florida &M University."
Robert Champion died in November after being beaten during a hazing ritual on a band bus outside an Orlando hotel. Eleven people face felony hazing charges in his death, and two more have been charged with misdemeanors. The band was suspended soon after Champion's death, and officials tried to fire band director Julian White. He fought his dismissal, but he recently retired after it was revealed that more than 100 band members were not students at the time Champion died.
For his part, White agreed that suspending the band until at least 2013 was the right move.
"I think we need to impress on the students and the community that we cannot allow the band to hold the public hostage," White said.
Champion's death, officials said, has revealed a culture of hazing at the university.
White acknowledged today that the hazing problems had gotten so bad last fall that he and top universities discussed the possibility of having the Marching 100 sit out the Florida Classic game against in-state rival Bethune-Cookman College where Champion marched for the last time. Champion's mother has said the band shouldn't be reinstated until the school "cleans house."
State university system officials are still looking into whether FAMU officials ignored past warnings about hazing. Meanwhile, the Florida Department of Law Enforcement continues to investigate the band's finances.
Chris Chestnut, an attorney for the Champion family, said his loved ones were relieved by Ammons' decision to keep the suspension in place another year. They have said they plan to sue the school.
However, he said, "they are disappointed that all of this could have been avoided if FAMU had paid attention to what was going on in that band for the last few years."
The band's suspension comes at a time when the university athletic department is already grappling with a budget deficit. Two of the big out-of-town games that feature the Marching 100 and rival bands generate $1.5 million a year, Ammons acknowledged. He said the university plans to come with "alternative entertainment" but he said he hoped FAMU supporters would still show up at football games.
"We are going to work very hard to sell this football program with the hopes our fan base will remain solid this football season," Ammons said.
FAMU has already begun making some changes following Champion's death — including a regulation requiring those attending, visiting or working at the school to tell police within 24 hours about any hazing incidents. But some say there is still good reason to keep the band from marching for now.
"If they don't address this and things continue to happen and it could be the next person, someone else's son or daughter could die over a hazing situation, so FAMU's got to do what it has to do," said Rayshun Head, a 22-year-old student.