New Band Director Says Florida A&M Must March Forward

Florida A&M University has lifted the suspension on the Marching 100 and is rebuilding its band. The band had been suspended since a hazing incident in 2011 ended in the death of drum major Robert Champion. His parents say the band is moving forward too soon.

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Let's go now to a university that's rebuilding its marching band. Florida A&M University recently lifted its suspension of the group known as the Marching 100. The band had been suspended since 2011 when a hazing that went too far ended in the death of one of the band's drum majors, Robert Champion. Champion's parents aren't happy about the university moving forward so quickly.

NPR's Kathy Lohr has more.

KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: Reinstating the band has been a deliberate process, according to the university's interim president, Larry Robinson, who made the announcement on campus a couple weeks ago.

LARRY ROBINSON: I want to reemphasize that I'm taking this action based upon all the work that has been done over this last year and a half to ensure that we have an even safer campus for students at this university.

LOHR: Robinson says he has taken a number of steps to prevent hazing. The university has hired two new administrators, enacted a stricter anti-hazing policy, and created better procedures to report hazing incidents. And the school hired a new marching band director, prominent Florida A&M alum Sylvester Young.

SYLVESTER YOUNG: We have to show to the public that this band is still a good band and these kids, all of these kids, are not bad.

LOHR: Young once led the Ohio University Marching Band and worked at two other historically black universities before coming out of retirement to lead the Marching 100.

YOUNG: We must move forward. But we must move forward with a new plan, but at the same time with the full knowledge what happened, why it happened, and to make sure it that it never happens again.

(SOUNDBITE OF BAND PRACTICE)

LOHR: On campus, musicians including this baritone player, practiced while waiting to hear whether the Marching 100 would return. The group has performed at Super Bowls and presidential inaugurations and is one of the best-known bands in the country.

The hazing incident that resulted in the beating death of Robert Champion on board a bus shocked the nation. Half a dozen former band members charged in connection with Champion's death have taken plea deals, and so far received light sentences. Half a dozen others face manslaughter charges and are scheduled to appear in court next month.

Former U.S. attorney David Weinstein says because there are so many defendants, the prosecutor is trying to determine who is most responsible for the crime.

DAVID WEINSTEIN: He's making a determination, who's more culpable than not and whose role was what and who was involved. And ultimately, he'll be left with potentially, you know, two or three people and ultimately they may have to go to trial.

LOHR: At a news conference in Atlanta, where the Champion family lives, Robert's mother Pam said reinstating the Marching 100 so soon is a mistake.

PAM CHAMPION: I don't see how you can say with a band that has a history, a long history, that we can safely say a year is enough.

LOHR: Later from her home in the suburbs, Champion said the school should be concerned with more than just the money and prestige that the Marching 100 brings.

CHAMPION: Just because of that pressure to get the band on the field, my son lost his life just for that pressure. So my thought is the solution is not let's see how quick we can get the band back. The focus should be the safety of the students, and I don't think we're there yet.

LOHR: Band director Sylvester Young says the students do come first. And he argues the band is part of their college experience.

YOUNG: We're still learning from it but we can't stop and not move forward, and that's what we're doing.

LOHR: Practices on the field in Tallahassee are expected to begin next month. But Young isn't saying yet whether the Marching 100 will be ready for the Rattlers' home opener in September.

Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Atlanta.

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