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Special Report: One Year Later, The Robert Champion Tragedy

Tallahassee, FL - November 19, 2012 - It was a year ago today that FAMU drum major Robert Champion died.

The 26-year-old's death brought to light what many called the secrecy of hazing.

Barbara Barnes, Ph.D. says, "You have all kinds of forms of abuse."

She says no matter the form, if it humiliates someone or is something a person feels forced to do to be a part of something, then it's hazing.

Dr. Barnes, "You have the physical abuse from drinking alcohol and from just insisting that a pledge gets engaged in something that's totally something they don't want to do, like swimming across something, or climbing a 60-foot ladder until you're out of breath."

Dr. Barnes is a former professor who studies how to prevent hazing. She and her partners developed an AntiHaze National Hazing Hotline shortly after the death of 26-year-old Robert Champion.

Champion, who was a drum major with the Marching 100 at FAMU, died after a hazing ritual after the Florida Classic football game in Orlando last November 19th.

Band members call the ritual "Crossing Bus C." They say it's when a band member walks from the front of a charter bus to the back, while other bandmates hit, kick, punch them.

Once the member touches the back wall, they've "crossed over."

Many say the "Crossing Bus C" hazing ritual was no secret. Witnesses say everyone knew what was going to happen once the Marching 100 left the Citrus Bowl the night Robert Champion died.

That night, the charter bus was parked in the lot of the Rosen Plaza Hotel. Court documents say Champion went to his hotel room after the game, changed clothes, then came back to the bus to "cross over."

Lisette Sanchez was the first to cross over that night. This is what she said in her police interview: "I was like unconscious basically. The only reason I think he [Champion] died is because he didn't have enough time to breathe. When I finished, I almost had a panic attack, because it gets really hot and you start not being able to breathe towards the back."

The Champion Family Attorney, Christopher Chestnut says, "If you really learn about the culture of hazing, those students didn't feel like they had any choice. There was no choice. If you wanted to survive in that band, you had to participate in these hazing rituals."

Dr. Barnes says the sense of wanting to belong can be so strong that it makes people do things they normally wouldn't do. She says those who are hazed tend to focus on the end result rather than the process.

"You focus on being in those colors. You focus on being in that network of people. You focus on partying with this group." She says.

Victor Gaines says things were different back when he was in the band between 1984 and 1991. He is the president of the Marching 100 Alumni Band. "It was more of a thinking-type thing. Just try to keep your mind sharp in terms of performance." He says.

Gaines adds, "I think that sometimes we get a warped sense of history, a warped sense of what is supposed to be listening to those tall tales from people, the minnow to the well-type stories; thinking that in order to be accepted, we have to do better, or we have to make things harder than it was for us; and that's not necessarily the case."

Dr. Barnes says there have been 50 cases of death due to hazing.

She says one of the first steps in ending hazing is to train student leaders and officers. "You got to call it out as leaders and say this is something that cannot be tolerated and will not be tolerated."

Dr. Barnes says students have to be taught how to think critically, ask questions and do research on the organization before attempting to join.

She says, "Just to get involved in something that may cut your life short, cut your dreams, just destroy your dreams and the dreams of your parents, is just not worth it."

Robert Champion's mother, Pamela Champion, says, "No one wants to be standing in our shoes. No one wants to hear on a phone call that our son collapsed and died.

Robert Champion's death initiated a lot of changes at FAMU. Some of those changes revolve around the suspension of the Marching 100.

Many were worried that people wouldn't show up to the football games since the Marching 100 wouldn't be performing. The band is suspended for the 2012-2013 academic year because of Champion's hazing death.

People like James Allison who went to FAMU High School as a young boy, says he'll always support FAMU regardless. He says, "I've been a die-hard Rattler since then. I bleed Rattler."

FAMU fan Danny Sylvester says, "We're die-hard Rattlers. We support them in good and bad times."

Rattler fans say it's times like these that remind them that it's not who's on the field during halftime, but who's on the field during four quarters of the game.

Former FAMU Football Player Todd Williams says, "We need the fan support. That's what I enjoyed about football, is having the fans come out and support us. Not only the band but the football team."

Because the world renowned Marching 100 does draw big crowds, and big money, FAMU administrators made a huge push to keep the crowds coming in the band's absence.

They packed halftime shows with recording artists, local high school bands, and D.J.s.

Yere Henderson attended FAMU's third home game when Hip Hop Legend MC Lyte performed. Henderson says, "I love MC Lyte. I grew up with MC Lyte and I appreciate her coming to Tallahassee. "

FAMU supporter Harris Wiltsher says, "Obviously there's nothing that can replace the Marching 100. But, it's very ingenious of the university to be able to bring artists like MC Lyte here for halftime shows."

Outside of changes at the games, administrators say more importantly, they've made changes over the past year to keep students safe.

In an effort to end hazing, the university will hire a Special Assistant to the President. The person in that new position will address hazing issues and bring any to the university president's attention.

The school has added personnel in Student Affairs to manage student clubs and organizations.

Administrators have revamped membership intake for organizations--retraining students and advisers on rules about hazing.

Earlier this year, the Board of Trustees revised the anti-hazing policy to allow students to report hazing without being afraid of retaliation.

Also, the website where students can anonymously report hazing incidents launched in October.

FAMU student Aspen Brown says, "I think that they're doing a really great job with that and I hope that they continue to do that because there's a lot of organizations that I'm sure students would like to join, but they're afraid to join because of the hazing."

A number of changes are specific to the band.

It was discovered after Champion's death that 101 band members weren't FAMU students. Now, all band members have to be full-time at FAMU. There will be rigorous academic requirements, a four-year limit on students being in the band, and limits on practice hours.

A compliance officer will be hired to make sure everyone is in line with all of the rules.

FAMU's interim president, Larry Robinson, Ph.D., says, "Of course, we have to stay vigilant. We have to continue to work hard at this. This problem didn't occur overnight, it's not going to be eliminated overnight. So, we can't rest on our laurels. We have to continue to monitor, provide training and education on a continuous basis in order to really, really rid out this problem."

FAMU student Schondra Chavers says, "It definitely doesn't make me feel like I shouldn't have ever came here because that doesn't take away from what this university gives to me and what I get out of this university. Anything that happen that's negative at any university is going to put some negative light on it. But at the same time, we're still FAMU, we're still a FAMUly."


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