The Black Wall of Silence
Abuse on black college campuses go unchallenged until it's too late
College hazing has been around since the inception of fraternities and sororities. From Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) to predominately white institutions, hazing reports have emerged. But when someone has been severely hurt or loses their life, the story is bound to grab the attention of the media. Unfortunately, this time, it’s an HBCU.
The recent death of drum major Robert Champion, 26, has caused Florida A&M University to be shoved into a media frenzy it cannot run away from — not to mention pending lawsuits and the embarrassing reprimanding of FAMU’s President James Ammons. The tragic news broke around the same time of sex abuse scandals at Penn State and Syracuse University. Alumni and students from all three schools were left wondering the same thing: How could this happen at my school?
Penn State’s scandal could be seen as a “cover-up.” It was clear that the actions of Jerry Sandusky were against the law, but overlooked by the higher ups. Yet, in FAMU's hazing incident, band director Julian White suspended individuals who hazed, and provided documentation to support his actions. The administration just failed to fight harder against the hazing culture in the band.
Should FAMU and Penn State receive the same national media coverage as the sex abuse scandals or are the two cases completely different?
FAMU, the college of "love and charity" could use an edifying moment right now. Plagued with financial woes and budget cuts, FAMU now has a death on their hands. As the top news story on major news outlets—including CNN, The Huffington Post, The Miami Herald and Fox News—the death of drum major Robert Champion, 26, has arguably become “fascinating” in the media world.
Frankly, as a graduate of FAMU, I find myself doing a Google search once a day to retrieve the latest news on my alma mater. But why is it so intriguing? Maybe the public has been captivated by the fact that a hazing death has occurred at a black institution or that secret-hazing practices by a world-renowned band have finally surfaced. Either way, Champion’s death has prompted a “FAMU Hazing Blog”—produced by a FAMU alumnus, a feisty college newspaper column written by the editor-in-chief—which was picked up by The Washington Post—and consistent coverage on CNN and Fox News.
Current FAMU student Brittney Akins, 22, a senior who was active with the campus’ Student Government Association from 2007-2008, said that the media has not been bias with their coverage of the alleged hazing incident when compared to other university scandals—including both Penn State and Syracuse sex abuse scandals.
“I do not think that FAMU was targeted because it was a black university,” Akins wrote in an email to Loop 21. “I believe that a life was lost and therefore, naturally, attention was drawn to our institution. I believe that there should be cause for concern if FAMU did not make it to national mainstream news after this tragedy.”
Champion was found unconscious aboard a bus front of an Orlando hotel after a football game with school rival Bethune-Cookman University. The drum major was later pronounced dead at a nearby hospital. The Orange County Sherriff’s office announced that hazing was involved with the death of Champion.
Since the incident, parents and band members have spoken media outlets—publicly and anonymously—about their knowledge of ongoing hazing in the “Marching 100.”
Four students, who were linked to Champion’s death, were suspended from the university, but at the request of the Florida Department of Law Enforcement, President Ammons withdrew disciplinary actions against each student.
Akins did acknowledge that there was a difference in media coverage when comparing the FAMU band-hazing incident to the Penn State sex scandal. But she attributed the distinction to the cultural difference among each school.
“Penn State is a more 'prominent' institution therefore there would be more opinions and sources for facts. FAMU is more tight nit; and even though it dealt with a death, it would be a lot harder for facts to be disclosed because of the tight-lipped nature of the institution and [the Marching 100].”
Akins said each school community responded different to each scandal--which she could be seen a predominately "black" response compared to a predominately "white" response.
“When Penn State made the decision to fire Sandusky, there was a great uprising defending him and in essence disregarding the issue at hand. It came across as a simple issue of loyalty and defending someone because they were apart of the school's history and not a matter of what he was accused of,” the student activist said. “In FAMU's case, I do believe that everyone was quick to separate the issue from being a ‘school issue’ to being a ‘Marching 100’ issue. But this can simply be seen as an instance where the band is historically tight-lipped,” she said.
Nadiyah Knight, 23, a senior who studies political science at FAMU, said if the same incident occurred at another black college or university and a predominately white institution, that school would experience the same coverage as Florida A&M.
Knight said the only unfair part of the FAMU band hazing scandal has been the recent disciplinary actions against the university’s administrative officials, which includes the reprimanding of President James Ammons and the initial firing of the Marching 100’s band director Julian White.
“I think the event itself was breath taking and touched someone in every way. If this had happened at another [historically black college or university] or even a white state college, there would have been media coverage hands down,” Knight told Loop 21.
“The fact that the president of our university's job is being threatened as a result from the incident? Not fair. [I] completely disagree. And that—itself—to me, portrays that this may be taken a bit out of proportion.”
While students and supporters of FAMU are divided on the media coverage--or lack there of--and what actions should be taken for those involved, all agree that hazing -- tradition -- or not can no longer be tolerated.
Recently, three students linked to another “Marching 100” hazing incident were arrested for participating in an alleged initiation process for the “Red Dawg Order,” which consists of band members who are native to Georgia.
The victim: Bria Hunter, 18, who went to the hospital Nov. 7 after she claimed three young men and was hit more than 20 times with a metal ruler. The freshman had a cracked femur and blood clots after being beaten on her thighs. Sean Hobson, 23, Aaron Golson, 19 and James Harris, 22, were booked on Dec. 12 for felony battery and hazing. Hobson and Harris has denied any abuse that took place.
Band members have engaged in hazing practices for years. In 2001, a student was hospitalized for kidney failure after he was severely paddled. Weeks before Champion’s death, the band director fired suspended 26 students for hazing.
Could Champion’s life have been saved if school officials launched a serious campaign against hazing? We will never know. But the drum major’s death may be a stark reality that hazing among on black college campuses is prominent, although hazing is often linked to sororities and fraternities.
In 2007, two members of the Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc. at FAMU received prison sentences for hazing a pledgee, who had a torn eardrum and was severely beaten on his buttocks. In 2010, Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. had to halt national recruiting after a 2009 incident at Fort Valley State University in Georgia where a pledgee was diagnosed with acute renal failure after being hazed. Two pledgees of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc. at California State University Los Angeles died after a hazing ritual that made them go into the water at the beach blindfolded, causing them to withstand waves that reached 10 feet.
Is it possible for black fraternities, sororities, marching bands to exist without engaging in traditional hazing practices? Maybe the pressure of being called “cat” or “paper” if a person is not “pledged” could be part of the reason why students agree to engage in hazing practices. Maybe hazing rituals passed down from alumni are to blame. But the unfortunate consequences of practicing life-threatening traditions may cause someone to lose their life.
Champion’s unfortunate death signals a wanted change all across the board. From The Divine Nine to Marching Bands, students and alumni have spoken. From comments to stories and articles being thrown around popular news networks, Champion’s story resonates with everyone -- specifically those who have “pledged” or graduated from a HBCU. Although FAMU may be the bait for news directors and editors gathering their top stories for the day, there is no doubt that the hazing incident has caused more students to emerge from this black wall of silence when discussing hazing.
Be sure to check out Loop 21 coverage of the FAMU Hazing Scandal in the stories below: