FAMU: Drum major willingly participated in hazing that led to death

Posted on: 5:47 pm, September 11, 2012, by , updated on: 05:50pm, September 11, 2012

FAMU Band Member Robert Champion

(CNN) — Florida A&M University says it is not responsible for the death of a drum major last year, and that he broke the law and school policies when he willingly took part in the hazing that left him dead.

In court papers filed Monday night, the school asked a judge to drop a wrongful death lawsuit filed by the parents of 26-year-old Robert Champion.

“Mr. Champion should have refused to participate in the planned hazing event and reported it to law enforcement or University administrators,” the court documents say. “Under these circumstances, Florida’s taxpayers should not be held financially liable to Mr. Champion’s Estate for the ultimate result of his own imprudent, avoidable and tragic decision and death.”

The student’s family lambasted the school Tuesday for denying responsibility.

“The Champion family is shocked at the defense FAMU has chosen in the brutal hazing death of Robert Champion,” family attorney Christopher Chestnut said. “We simply cannot ignore the audacity of an institution that blames students for their own deaths, yet for decades ignored the hazing epidemic occurring within its own walls.”

In a message to CNN, school attorney Richard E. Mitchell said FAMU is not “blaming the victim,” but is saying “that his voluntary participation in felony hazing, as a 26 year old grown man and band leader, bars his estate’s alleged claim for taxpayer dollars as a matter of law.”

FAMU is publicly funded.

Champion died in November 2011 following his beating on a bus in Orlando, Florida, after a football game at which the school’s famed marching band performed.

The ritual, called “Crossing Bus C,” was an initiation in which pledges try to run down a bus’s center aisle while being assaulted by senior members, according to some university band members.

Fourteen people since have been charged in the case. They include 11 facing one count apiece of third-degree felony hazing resulting in death and two counts each of first-degree misdemeanor hazing. Three others each face a single count of first-degree misdemeanor hazing.

In July, Champion’s parents filed a lawsuit against the school’s board of trustees, the company that owns the bus in which the abuse occurred, and the driver of the bus.

The school, in its response filed Monday night, said Champion watched or at least heard two other students — one female, one male — undergoing hazing on the bus before he did, and there is “no allegation or evidence” that he attempted to stop the process before being hazed himself.

“Instead, Mr. Champion allowed himself to be subjected to an act of hazing known as a ‘hot seat,’ during which he allowed his adult body to be deprived of oxygen, punched, kicked and hit with objects,” the court documents say.

Champion’s injuries “arose from his participation in unlawful acts of hazing,” so the school cannot be held legally liable, it argued.

FAMU noted that many of Champion’s “co-conspirators are now under criminal prosecution for felony hazing, yet Plaintiff has not asserted any civil claims against any of Mr. Champion’s identified hazers.”

The family’s lawsuit said FAMU “has a long history of knowledge of and tolerance for hazing within the” band, including incidents that led to hospitalizations over the years.

In November, shortly before the incident involving Champion, the school’s Dean Henry Kirby “proposed imposing an immediate long-term suspension of the FAMU Band to combat the egregious hazing,” but the school did not implement the proposal after opposition from the band director, the lawsuit alleges.

It also argues that band members “were under the control of FAMU at all times” during the weekend when Champion died.

The bus was operated “pursuant to a valid Florida contract” between the bus company, Fabulous Coach, and FAMU, the lawsuit says.

The count accusing FAMU of wrongful death says the FAMU Board of Trustees owed Champion “a duty of care” and knew, or should have known, that the band engaged in conduct that violated laws and school policies.

The board either “negligently failed to have any policies or procedures governing, monitoring, or disciplining FAMU Band members for facilitation, participation or encouragement of hazing activities” or failed to adequately implement such policies.

While an amount of money was not specified, the lawsuit sought damages for wrongful death as well as for the pain and suffering of the dead man’s parents, Robert and Pamela Champion.

FAMU trustees and school officials have taken numerous steps to strengthen rules against hazing since Champion’s death, including setting up an independent panel of experts to investigate hazing allegations.

FAMU is creating two jobs: a special assistant to the president on hazing and a music compliance officer. About 60 people have applied for each position.

The band was suspended through the 2012-13 school year. The band’s longtime director retired, and the university’s president stepped down.

The school also launched a new website, StopHazingatFAMU.com.

But accusations of hazing at the school haven’t ended.

Last week, the Torque Dance Team was suspended after a parent anonymously reported that hazing had occurred at an off-campus event over Labor Day weekend, the school said in a statement.

The all-female dance team allegedly conducted hazing involving alcohol consumption and “running up hills,” university spokeswoman Sharon Saunders said.

CNN’s Josh Levs, Greg Botelho and George Howell contributed to this report.

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