TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Florida A&M President James Ammons said Monday the university is committed to breaking a conspiracy of silence that has for decades shrouded hazing practices at the school and finally resulted in a band member's death.
Ammons addressed an estimated 2,000 FAMU students Monday night and then took several questions, many of which were about the media coverage that most in the audience felt portrayed the school in a bad light.
"We are going to eliminate this pattern of destructive behavior from our campus," Ammons said. "This code of silence hampers our ability to root out these insidious activities."
Petitions were sent through the audience from student government leaders seeking signatures from students to pledge to stop hazing at the school.
Robert Champion, a drum major in the school's famed band, the "Marching 100," died in Orlando. It came hours after performing at the annual Florida Classic football game between the Rattlers and rival Bethune-Cookman.
Champion, 26, was found unresponsive on Nov. 19 on a bus parked outside a hotel after the game after he had been seen vomiting. Police have not been specific, but said they believe hazing played a part in his death.
It also started a criminal investigation into whether FAMU officials have ignored past warnings about hazing.
"It's just not right, but it probably took this for it to stop," said Fredrick Mixon, a 21-year-old fourth-year health service major from Avon Park. "It's an embarrassment to the university, not only to the Marching 100. It's shameful."
Ammons repeatedly asked students to keep Champion and his family in their hearts and as the rallying cry to finally stamp out a hazing tradition that has haunted FAMU for the past 20 years.
"We're going to have to unify around the legacy of Robert Champion," Ammons said. "And to institute a complete culture change here at FAMU."
Champion's death is being investigated by the Orange County Sheriff's Office and Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Until it is completed, the showy high-stepping, high-energy band is suspended from performing.
Ammons also fired longtime band director Julian White and expelled four band members suspected to be involved in hazing.
"This is one of the most challenging times that the university has had," he said. "This university community is committed to making this right and doing away once and for all with hazing."
The Marching 100's rich history includes performing at several Super Bowls and representing the U.S. in Paris at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution.
There have been no formal discussions about when, or even if, the band will resume its activities during the remainder of this school year.
"Out of respect for Robert Champion and his family, I just don't think they should be performing," Ammons said.
More than 100 band members dressed in bright orange T-shirts with "100" on the front, sat together in the crowd.