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Several to face charges in death of Robert Champion in hazing case

By Denise-Marie Balona, The Orlando Sentinel –

ORLANDO, Fla. — Several people will be charged Wednesday in the beating death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion, who was severely hazed on a charter bus after the Florida Classic football game in Orlando last fall.

Prosecutors plan to bring a range of felony and misdemeanor charges against “several” suspects, said Danielle Tavernier, a spokeswoman for the Orange-Osceola State Attorney’s Office. Those charges mark a major turning point in a five-month investigation into what happened the night of Nov. 19 aboard the parked bus at the Rosen Plaza hotel.

FAMU students have told The Orlando Sentinel that Champion was hazed on the so-called infamous “Bus C” by members of the famous Marching 100 band.

Meanwhile, the university continues to grapple with the fallout from Champion’s death, which has led to other hazing allegations and questions about the university’s ability to control hazing within the Marching 100 band.

In other developments:

Two FAMU professors have quit under pressure after the university told them that they would be fired for being at a party in 2010 during which students were hazed. One of the professors hosted the party. An attorney for professors Anthony Simons and Diron Holloway said Tuesday that FAMU sent letters informing them of the plan to dismiss them, effective May 3. But they both resigned last week.

A committee of experts that FAMU created to help the university battle hazing on campus has fallen apart. Officials confirmed to The Orlando Sentinel on Tuesday that five of seven members have quit after university trustees recently required them to start meeting in accordance with Florida’s strict open-government laws.

Since Champion was beaten to death, the university has suspended all band activity and introduced some reforms. Meanwhile, investigators have interviewed more than 50 witnesses in an effort to find out who was responsible for killing the 26-year-old drum major.

Investigators with the Orange County Sheriff’s Office and Florida Department of Law Enforcement turned over their findings to prosecutors in late March. Legal experts have said the case will be tough to prosecute because of the sheer number of people — more than 20 — who were on the bus the night Champion died.

Champion was punched, kicked and suffocated by fellow band members, according to the Champion family’s attorney, who has filed a wrongful-death lawsuit against the charter-bus company and bus driver.

In recent months, Champion’s parents have spoken out in frustration about the pace of the investigation and the fact that no charges had been filed. His mom, Pamela Champion, has said she wants everyone who played a role in his death to be prosecuted.

The Champions, of Georgia, could not be reached for comment Tuesday. But Tavernier said the State Attorney’s Office has been communicating with their lawyer “to share information on moving forward.”

Since the attack, a growing number of other hazing allegations have surfaced at FAMU, Florida’s only historically black public university.

Most recently, university trustees and others were outraged to learn that two music professors were accused of being present during a student hazing in 2010. Holloway and Simons were suspended with pay in late March pending an internal review.

Simons said he did not see any of the hitting or paddling that some students told police that they either experienced or witnessed at Holloway’s Tallahassee home. Nobody complained to him either, he said.

Even though Simons said he did not participate, he said he understood why FAMU moved to fire him. The university has faced widespread criticism for its handling of hazing within the band.

“Of course, I felt like it was harsh, but the university is doing what they feel like they have to do to get past this,” he said. “We love FAMU … I wish them nothing but the best, but it’s a business, and you have to make business decisions.”

FAMU’s longtime band director, Julian White, has been on paid leave for months.

To try to prevent hazing, university trustees voted last month to strengthen FAMU’s existing anti-hazing policy by requiring virtually everyone who has a relationship with the school — students, employees, volunteers and even vendors — to report any hazing activity they learn about to the campus police within 24 hours.

Several months ago, FAMU created a committee of experts to help it figure out how to banish hazing. But two members of the committee quit immediately after being told in March that they would not be able to meet in private. The committee had wanted to meet in private so members could communicate freely without having to follow the complex rules of Florida’s broad open-government laws.

FAMU officials confirmed Tuesday that several other members have since quit. Only two members remain. But FAMU has “begun the process of reconstituting the FAMU Anti-Hazing Committee with new members,” said university spokeswoman Sharon Saunders.

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