ORLANDO – Florida A&M University's famed band made its first appearance in a football stadium in nearly 22 months on Sunday after the 2011 hazing death of a drum major.
The band entered Orlando's Citrus Bowl Stadium prior to kickoff for the school's season-opening football game against Mississippi Valley State. It will give its return performance at halftime.
All band performances were halted for FAMU's famed Marching 100 shortly after Robert Champion collapsed and died following a hazing ritual on a bus parked at an Orlando hotel in November 2011. The ritual occurred shortly after the band had returned to its hotel from a performance at the annual Florida Classic football game.
School officials lifted the nearly two-year suspension for the band in June as the latest in several sweeping changes FAMU has made in an attempt to end a culture of hazing. The fallout from Champion's death included the departure of the band's longtime director and the abrupt resignation of the university's president, James Ammons.
At a news conference last month to formally announce of the band's return performance, FAMU's interim president, Larry Robinson, reiterated that the school has taken several measures to prevent hazing, including a new student code of conduct, new procedures to report and investigate hazing, an anti-hazing website, assigning faculty to research hazing and more.
"This band will be a model of excellence for other bands across this nation. It will actually focus on its founding principles of character, academics, leadership, marching and service," Robinson said of the band's return. "When you look at all these actions that we've taken in total, we are fairly confident that we are about to launch a new era and a new understanding and appreciation as to why hazing is not necessary to advance these principles."
Fifteen former band members were charged with manslaughter and felony hazing in Champion's death. Seven have accepted pleas that included probation and community service-related sentences. Another has pleaded, but hasn't been sentenced, and the rest are still awaiting trial.
Champion's parents, Pam and Robert Champion, Sr., said in a phone interview with The Associated Press that they were opposed to the band's return right now, calling it a decision based on extra revenue the school stands to make with the band's return.
"I do believe that it's too soon," Pam Champion said. "I don't see anything that's different to ensure the safety of those students. Everything that has been put in place is not something that was done voluntarily."
She also said she hoped sentences for the remaining defendants in the criminal cases will send a message.
"What I would say is what I've said all along. There is an opportunity to send a strong message, and it's the only thing that will be a deterrent," she said. "So far that message has not been sent to eradicate hazing all together."
The Champions have pending wrongful-death lawsuits against FAMU and the company that owns the bus in which the hazing took place.
Champion family attorney Chris Chestnut said the cases are progressing and called the material he's gathered during the pre-trial discovery process "compelling."