The Consequences Of Homicide By Hazing

On Wednesday, several people were charged in the alleged hazing death of Florida A&M drum major Robert Champion, Jr. He was found unresponsive aboard a chartered bus after a football game in November 2011. Host Michel Martin speaks with Orlando Sentinel reporter Denise-Marie Balona.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. Coming up, we will hear from a Smithsonian jazz ambassador who wants to change the way audiences hear the harmonica. Frederic Yonnet joins us for a performance and conversation and to talk about his new album, "Reed" - that's R-E-E-D - "My Lips." That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we want to revisit a disturbing story that highlighted the issue of hazing on college campuses. On Wednesday, Florida State Attorney Lawson Lamar announced that 13 people have been charged in the death of Robert Champion, Jr. He is the Florida A&M University drum major who died in November of 2011 after an alleged beating by fellow marching band members on a chartered bus. It's been described as part of a hazing incident, and now 11 of 13 defendants will face felony hazing charges.

I talked with Robert Champion's parents, Robert Champion, Sr. and Pamela Champion, back in December. And I just want to play a short clip of what Mr. Champion's father had to say in that conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

ROBERT CHAMPION, SR.: We'll address the problem and let people know that we're going to do all we can to get this hazing thing stopped so no other kid will have to go through what he went through.

MARTIN: We wanted to talk more about new developments in this tragic case, so we've called upon Denise-Marie Balona. She's a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel, and has been covering this story.

Welcome to the program. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

DENISE-MARIE BALONA: Thank you for having me, Michel.

MARTIN: Denise, could you just - Denise-Marie, could you just briefly remind us of what is alleged to have happened to Robert Champion, Jr. on that bus back in November?

BALONA: After the Florida Classic football game last year, a number of band members and maybe some other people got onboard the bus after everyone had already gotten off, and a number of hazing rituals were - apparently happened. Robert and one or two other people apparently were trying to complete a ritual known as crossing bus C, and went through a number of rituals that included punching and kicking. And, at one point, as we understand, there was also a ritual involving suffocation.

MARTIN: In the months since this awful thing happened, authorities have been conducting an investigation that led to the 13 people being charged. But an additional 20 misdemeanor hazing charges were brought against others, some in apparently unrelated incidents. Can you tell us a little bit more about that?

BALONA: I'm still trying to get some clarification on those, but from what I understand, because there were - the other people who went through the hazing, I think there are one or two other students besides Robert who were hazed onboard the bus that evening. We're thinking that those - or least many of those charges - are related to the hazing of those other people.

MARTIN: Now, Denise-Marie, you cover higher education, and I think what was shocking about this story for many people is I think many people associate hazing with, you know, fraternities or sororities or, you know, football teams or something like that. I don't think a lot of people, perhaps outside of a few circles, knew that hazing rituals were associated with something like the band. I mean, is this something that you knew about, as an education reporter? Or are you surprised by this, as well?

BALONA: I had not heard of it before, either. Like you said, I had heard about fraternities, sororities, athletic groups involved with colleges, but not in marching bands. But, early on, I started getting information about hazing being pretty popular among marching bands at historically black colleges and universities.

MARTIN: To that end, I want to play another clip from my previous conversation with Robert Champion's parents, and in this clip, Robert Champion's mother addresses the secretiveness of this, or how - the secrecy around this. I'll just play that short clip.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED AUDIO)

PAMELA CHAMPION: We're speaking out because we want to, in my son's name, to be able to put a stop to it, to end all the hazing. Now that the door has been opened and we can see all the things that are behind that door, I think it needs to be cleaned out and stopped.

MARTIN: I understand that in the course of your reporting, that you've been speaking to many parents about this, about this so-called culture of hazing. Can you just tell us a little bit more about what your reporting has indicated? For example, is this something that seems to have been going on for many years? Is this a recent phenomenon? Do the kids talk to their parents about it?

BALONA: It seems to have been going on for a while. It looks like FAMU has been struggling with this problem for a number of years. You know, through public records and conversations with parents, we've learned that a number of families, students and others have come to the administration complaining about hazing within the band, and asking the school to be more aggressive.

You know, we know that the on-campus police department has investigated at least 10 cases of hazing involving the band between fall of '07 and late last year. So, yeah. We do know that this is something they've been struggling with for a while, and we also know that the university has been taking steps to try to prevent it. I mean, they're having hazing workshops. They're talking to the band every year before school starts. I understand that the band director - who's now on paid administrative leave - he has spoken to band members a number of times. They have to sign anti-hazing pledges at the start of the school year.

So, yeah. It has been a problem that they've been struggling with for a while, and I think parents will just tell you they don't think it's under control.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE, from NPR News. We're getting an update on the tragic death of FAMU drum major Robert Champion, Jr. He died last year after an alleged hazing incident. Charges were filed yesterday. They're serious ones. They're felony charges. And my guest is Orlando Sentinel reporter Denise-Marie Balona, who's been covering this story.

You know, back to the investigation and the charges, I think it's also perhaps surprising to some people that there is a charge, a specific charge of hazing. Can you tell us a little bit more about that and what you found out after the charges were made?

BALONA: Well, there's a state statute that talks about hazing, and Florida is one of the few in the country that has a very strict, specific hazing law. And, you know, there's misdemeanor hazing. There's felony hazing. Misdemeanor would be, you know, participating in an event that would be hitting or embarrassing someone, whereas a felony would be actually injuring someone, seriously injuring someone, or even killing them as a result of the hazing activities.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense of whether this kind of behavior is going on on other campuses in the state? It sounds as though Florida has been thinking about this for some time, and I just wonder if it's having any impact on behavior, or if this is something that you're seeing on other campuses, in addition to FAMU.

BALONA: We definitely know that hazing is going on at other campuses around Florida and the country. That's definite. University of Florida has been dealing with some issues very recently. They made some arrests within the last few weeks related to some hazing involving a fraternity at their campus. So we do occasionally hear about hazing involving fraternities and athletic groups, but not so much among marching band members. And I think that's why this has drawn so much attention.

MARTIN: Well, we do hope you'll keep us posted on this, and thank you for your reporting in this.

BALONA: Thank you, Michel.

MARTIN: Denise-Marie Balona is a reporter for the Orlando Sentinel. She's been covering the death - allegedly by hazing - of Robert Champion, Jr., a drum major at FAMU. She joined us from member station WMFE in Orlando, Florida.

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