The death of Florida A&M drum major Robert D. Champion, Jr. brought hazing within marching bands to the national spotlight. How can students, directors and administrators unite to prevent hazing on their campuses?
Photo Courtesy of Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (FAMU)
Every band director’s worst nightmare played out in the national spotlight this fall as news broke of the death of Robert D. Champion, Jr., a drum major at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University (Florida A&M or FAMU, for short). Champion passed away while on a road trip with FAMU’s Marching 100. Details began to emerge, indicating that his death was due to some kind of beating, suspected to be a hazing ritual.
As the investigation continued, FAMU alums, parents and other current students began to come forward with more hazing allegations. Suddenly, Historically Black Colleges and Universities, college bands and the entire marching community were looked at a little differently as the public reacted to the scandal.
What Is Hazing?
So what constitutes hazing? How can marching bands prevent it? And how can the marching arts recover from the scandal at FAMU—one of the most well-known programs both among HBCUs and in the United States?
Hazing is defined as “any activity expected of someone joining a group (or to maintain full status in a group) that humiliates, degrades or risks emotional and/or physical harm, regardless of the person’s willingness to participate.”
Unfortunately that definition leaves much to interpretation. “There’s a very gray area in terms of hazing, and it runs the gamut,” says Dr. Walter Kimbrough, president of Philander Smith College in Little Rock, Ark. and an expert on hazing. “People focus on things that are dangerous or potentially dangerous. But hazing could be anything from all the freshmen wearing certain outfits or carrying other people’s instruments.”
While there’s no question that the alleged beatings at FAMU would be considered hazing, less violent offenses are harder to classify as either hazing or harmless. “It’s easy to define if someone’s being beaten or verbally abused; the problem is the less-obvious definition,” says David Mills, director of bands at the University of Connecticut. “Hazing is hazing if it looks like that to an outsider. If someone would think, ‘What are they doing?,’ even it’s some kind of innocent horseplay and agreed to by all, if from the outside it looks like hazing, it’s hazing. And that’s the new definition that makes it so difficult.”
Marching bands have a military background, and most still carry many of the same disciplinary ideals, including a hierarchy and respect based on years of experience. “The culture of most marching bands is that freshmen are made aware that they are freshmen,” says Michael Leckrone, band director at the University of Wisconsin, which dealt with hazing allegations in 2006 and 2008. “Telling the freshmen to clean the area after rehearsal; I think that’s part of the freshmen experience, but some would think that’s hazing. I think hazing is when you demean someone and harm them. It’s all in that definition. … It’s very important to us that they don’t get demeaned, and I don’t think it rises to the level of physical abuse or mental harm.”
Many groups institute a policy of running laps or giving pushups for mistakes on the field, but some say that even that could constitute hazing.
“How do push-ups help you not make a mistake?” questions John T. Madden, band director at Michigan State University (MSU), where an alleged hazing and assault case surfaced in the 1990’s. “That’s hazing; it’s a physical punishment associated with a mistake, and I think that the punishment doesn’t fit the crime. Every positive action helps improve the band, and negative actions do not. It’s not the right thing; that’s not how we treat people.”
Every band director and program needs to determine what they will consider hazing on an individual basis while still keeping the big picture in mind. “They should probably start addressing those small things initially because they can lead to other things; you could call it gateway hazing; it all has to be addressed,” says Kimbrough, who has served as an expert witness for cases of marching band and fraternity/sorority hazing. “But we’re in a period of time where there are bigger concerns. You should have a blanket policy against all hazing, but we really have got to address those people operating on one end of the spectrum and work our way down. There are beatings, people using weapons. I don’t know where they get these ideas from. I’ve heard of people being hit with frying pans.”
The band director and staff can’t police students 24/7, but there are ways to educate, communicate with, and change the attitudes of band members. Sometimes outside influences can be helpful, and bands may be able to learn from fraternities and sororities. Kimbrough recommends an education program including a full day of anti-hazing training at the beginning of band camp and a half-day checkpoint halfway through the season.
“You need to spend money to bring people in to talk about hazing, and you need to have students sign agreements where they agree that they will be expelled for participating,” Kimbrough says. “There has to be much more severe penalties, so people can make a determination if being involved in this hazing activity is worth the consequences.”
Kimbrough predicts that over time, band-specific anti-hazing speakers and experts will emerge. Until then, the student affairs department can be a great existing and free resource. “Those partnerships need to be closer, and they could use those people to do workshops; they are doing them for fraternities and sororities anyway,” says Kimbrough. “I know that on some campuses, they throw [all campus organizations] together for training.”
Other than education, Kimbrough recommends increased staffing. “It’s too much of a major responsibility for just the director,” Kimbrough says. “I think one of the things that should develop is that there will have to be official staff hired, people with a student affairs background working with the band members and keeping their eyes and ears open. There are people hired to work with fraternities, sororities and athletic teams where that’s their entire job—looking at students’ academics, health and safety.”
At the high school level, the entire burden of anti-hazing responsibility can fall on the director’s shoulders. “Hazing is no different from child abuse,” says Jerry Burdick-Rutz, band director at Great Oak High School in Temecula, Calif., and an MSU alum. “When an abused child is older, they will either continue or break the pattern as a parent. If a marching band experiences hazing, it is because the director, ‘the parent of the organization,’ allows it to occur. While it may have been tolerated or a part of traditions long before the current staff, it is a pattern that must be broken.”
Music fraternity Phi Mu Alpha has extensive anti-hazing information on its website and provides new members with information on how to report violations, including an anonymous online tip service. “We have been very fortunate in our recent history to have no major infractions or legal action,” says Mark Wilson, the national director of communications. “We have in the past had to expel chapters for conduct that isn’t aligned with our policies, and there have been isolated incidents where we took action against individual brothers or chapters. We’ve done a good job in policing this and preventing it before it happens through education.”
Band directors have mostly used their own grassroots methods. “Open up the line of communication,” Leckrone says. “Freshmen are the most susceptible to hazing; they feel like they just have to take it. We instituted a band buddy system, we make sure they understand the chain of command, and you also need to give them contact information for the dean of students’ office or whoever’s in charge and can act quickly.” Madden suggests frequent meetings with section and/or squad leaders. “Every spring I meet with section and squad leaders to discuss goals and improvements, and those leaders carry the torch of the band’s approach next season,” Madden says. “Planting the seeds in the spring is step one. In the fall I have those section leaders meet every Monday in a closed-door meeting to tell me what’s really going on. Not only is there thorough education; there’s constant follow-up and communication.”
Don’t Do This; Do That
Not all hazing is born of malicious intent. A desire to prove oneself to the group or have others prove themselves is rooted in human nature but when misguided can develop into a dangerous situation. “It’s a natural human trait, and it escalates,” Mills says. “Bands are big groups, and they do require a lot of work and generate a lot of spirit and caring. That’s a fertile ground for people to want to prove themselves in more ways. If people want to do extra as leaders—we have a tremendous amount of organizational positions. People don’t need to go proving themselves in any other way than in an official capacity.”
Providing leadership positions or official clubs and subgroups can be an effective way to channel the energy of extremely spirited students, so that they don’t resort to hazing or inappropriate activities. “One of the things that [Phi Mu Alpha] can do that can help with [preventing hazing in marching bands] is giving them an alternative; don’t do this, but instead do these things,” Wilson says. “In Phi Mu Alpha, you have structure, and you create music; we have our charity, and all of them do that and report back to us. We’re giving them things to plan and do that are productive. If you’re providing the structure and activities, it goes a long way toward preventing those sorts of behaviors.”
Phi Mu Alpha does have a chapter at FAMU. According to an investigation by its province governor, no Sinfonians were involved in the recent incidents.
Rules and signed contracts against hazing just aren’t enough in most cases. The attitude and beliefs system of the band and leadership must be developed, so that they are revolted by hazing, according to Mills. “You can’t just legislate it out because then it just goes underground and becomes hidden from authority,” Mills says. “It has to come from the belief and understanding of the young people that that’s not necessary and shouldn’t be part of our group.”
The FAMU Impact
From a national standpoint, the recent events at FAMU seem to be isolated. Most do not believe that these types of severe beatings and secret subgroups within college marching bands are common. It is too early to fully analyze the effect that Champion’s death and the subsequent investigation will have on the marching arts, but bands are already taking action.
“This has pretty much changed the game as far as our community and our world; this is a turning point,” says Christy Walker, creator of The5thQuarter.com, an HBCU band fan website. “It would surprise me if any HBCU band director at this point has not had communication with the university president. There’s going to be some big changes, maybe it’s a closer eye on the band programs, maybe it’s really airtight hazing statements that everybody has to sign.”
Some directors shared the story with their staffs, leadership teams and even the entire band. “It’s a wakeup call to everyone,” says Mills, who also serves as the chairman of the Athletic Band Committee of the College Band Directors National Association. “It’s one of those things that no one can ignore. Since this happened in the band world, we all have to use this opportunity to heighten our vigilance against it. I immediately wrote a note to my band saying that we need to recognize this.”
Because it occurred within a marching band, the case has garnered extra attention from media outlets. “People die from hazing every year,” Kimbrough says. “This story just shocked people because it was a band, and people don’t think of hazing in bands. This is the most widely publicized hazing case in the history of the country, by far.”
HBCU fans, students and alums have expressed concern about how this will damage the community at large. “There are people that are concerned about how this will dampen our craft,” Walker says. “There are some people that voice opinions that they’re not really surprised. But the majority is just outrage and anger, that it’s not only damaging to FAMU but to all black college bands because FAMU was the most well-known program and in the spotlight—so what happens to them has an impact on the smaller bands as well.”
An Endless Battle
Due to the addition of new students each year, the efforts against hazing can never be completed. “I don’t think it’s something where you can says, ‘We’ve got the problem cleared,’” Leckrone says. “You need to be continually vigilant. You can’t assume that’s the end of it because every year you’re dealing with new individuals, and they need to understand what the guidelines are.”
High school students entering college should be curious and questioning. Ask about hazing, and don’t be afraid to speak up. “You can save someone’s life,” Kimbrough says. “More people need to say, ‘I know this is going on, and I’m going to tell.’ People get hazed every year, and nothing happens. More and more people have to be empowered and say something.”
Madden’s anti-hazing efforts are aided by instilling a strong sense of pride in the band’s reputation in each student. “I create standards about what we do in the name of the band even when not affiliated,” he says. “You’d never see someone go on a bar crawl in their band jacket. Even though college students go do that, and they’re of age, and I can’t stop it, they wouldn’t wear their band jacket.”
“Making the band look good and sound good is easy,” Madden continues. “Persuading kids to treat each other with respect is the roll-up-your-sleeves work that I absolutely revere.”
The marching community can honor Champion and other victims by working to prevent hazing in their communities. “When you deal with young people, you’re never done—people change, and every year I get 100 new kids in, and there are all kinds of influences in society that lead to things that aren’t necessarily great, and it is scary,” says Mills. “What I will do to honor this young man is to make sure that the kids I have and my staff and myself are vigilant in running the other way from this whole idea that one has to prove themselves in any way other than what we do on the field or in the rehearsal room. They’re worthy because they’re there and joining in our work together, and that’s the bottom line and the end of it.”
About the Author
Elizabeth Geli is the assistant editor and web editor for Halftime Magazine and a freelance journalist and communications professional in Los Angeles. She marched flute at Valencia High School in Placentia, Calif., and in the University of Southern California (USC) Trojan Marching Band, where she now works as a teaching assistant. She has a bachelor’s degree in print journalism and a Master’s in Specialized Journalism (The Arts) from USC.