FAMU's Town Hall Calls For Hazing To Be Reported

Florida A&M University held a meeting on Thursday for students to talk about hazing. Last November drum major Robert Champion died in a hazing incident, and more than a dozen students face criminal charges. The event thrust the university and the issue of hazing into the national spotlight.

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Florida A&M University held a town hall meeting yesterday. Students and faculty talked about hazing. Drum major Robert Champion died in a hazing incident last November, and more than a dozen students face criminal charges. Now, people at FAMU, known as FAMU, know the country is watching. NPR's Kathy Lohr has the story.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: At the campus meeting, hazing experts said they realize it's been difficult at FAMU since the death of Robert Champion.

HANK NUWER: Florida A&M has an target on its back, yes, but it also has a chance to change the culture of society in general.

LOHR: Hank Nuwer has written four books on hazing. He told students many schools are facing the same challenge.

NUWER: Fresno State, Cornell, Radford, Vincents, Northern Colorado, have all had recent hazing deaths. The last time I heard from a mother who suspected anything was an email at eleven o'clock last night after the drowning of a pledge at the University of Idaho. So you're not alone.

Drum major Robert Champion died last fall after being beaten on a bus after a football game. It was part of a hazing ritual. The brutality of the beating and Champion's death shocked this campus and the country. Throughout yesterday's meeting, students were asked questions about the definition of hazing, many didn't have a clear answer. Professor at the University of Maine and national hazing expert Elizabeth Allan says that's part of the problem.

ELIZABETH ALLAN: They don't see many things that meet the definition of hazing as hazing, because the image in their head is a physical force, and they often fail to account for the power of coercion, the group peer pressure, the emotional kinds of power dynamics that play out in a group situation.

LOHR: In a 2008 study, Allan says more than half of students who belong to clubs, teams, or other collegiate organizations said they had experienced hazing, and 47 percent said they also went through it in high school. It's not clear how many of the FAMU students attended this town hall meeting. Many wandered in and out during the forum. President of the Marching 100, Brandon Cunningham, told the group that the band committed to ending hazing, and he had this advice for those who may not take the issue seriously.

BRANDON CUNNINGHAM: Remember one thing, the Marching 100 has done a lot of great things for the university, and if they can suspend us for a year, what makes you think that they can't do that to your organization, all right? So just be very careful about your decisions and ask yourself if it's going to be worth it.

LOHR: Outside students had mixed opinions about how much the meeting will change student behavior. Chandeidra Williams is a junior at FAMU.

CHANDEIDRA WILLIAMS: I'm not sure if it will stop hazing, just to be honest, but, I mean, (unintelligible) have information out there on the consequences of hazing, I think it's good to have it out there, but I don't know if it will stop because some people are still stuck in their mindset that they're going to do it anyway.

LOHR: Femi Komolafe who's a junior, brought along Christina Hibbert who attends Florida State University. After hearing the discussion, they say it's up to students in groups that have traditionally committed the hazing to stop it.

FEMI KOMOLAFE: If they're actually willing to let go of things they had to do to get into the organization and allow new members to come in without having to go through what they went through, then that's when change will happen.

CHRISTINA HIBBERT: We have to be the ones to step up and say that we're not going to allow people to do that to us. We have to be the ones to step up to say that we're not going to continue in a tradition that's so - so primitive, to me, at least.

LOHR: Several members of the Marching 100, including Timothius Harper and Kenneth Johnson were here. They miss the band, but they say they understand why the university suspended the group this year.

TIMOTHIUS HARPER: For every action there's a consequence.

KENNETH JOHNSON: Right.

HARPER: And even though it was a few, you know, everybody in the Marching 100 understands that we're now a catalyst for this anti-hazing movement. And so we're just taking this time off to regroup and to reevaluate some things. And we're going to come back and we're going to be better than we ever were.

LOHR: University officials hope students learn through forums like this one, but it's not clear how well that worked. At the end of the town hall, just 68 percent of those polled said they would report hazing if they saw it or participated in it. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Tallahassee.

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