EQFL NOTE: Equality Florida continues to be in contact with numerous students and officials at FAMU to ensure Robert's death is investigated and prosecuted to the full extent of the law. If you have information to share, please contact the Central Florida Crime Line at 1-800-423-TIPS (8477) or contact Equality Florida at 813-870-3735.
Questions Swirl Over What Led to Florida Drum Major’s Death
By ROBBIE BROWN
Witnesses have told parents of Robert Champion Jr., a Florida A&M University student who recently died after a hazing incident, that the 26-year-old drum major may have been targeted because of his sexual orientation.
ATLANTA — Almost two months after the beating death of a Florida A&M University drum major, new questions have arisen over why he might have been singled out for violence.
On Tuesday, the parents of the student, Robert Champion, revealed that their son had been gay. But they said they believed that did not play a big role in the beating the authorities say he sustained at the hands of bandmates on a bus after a football game on Nov. 19.
“Robert’s being gay may have been a reason for his hazing, but it wasn’t the main reason,” said Christopher M. Chestnut, the family’s lawyer, who said he had conducted a private investigation. “This was a hazing crime, not a hate crime.”
That Mr. Champion was gay was “a private thing, not something he advertised publicly,” his mother, Pam Champion, said in an interview. Instead, she said at a press conference in Orlando, Fla., on Tuesday, her son had been targeted as retribution for his well-known stance against hazing.
Many former Florida A&M band members have alleged that the prestigious university band, the Marching 100, has a culture of musicians punching, slapping, paddling and forcing one another to perform degrading acts. Last month, a band member left the university after claiming she had been punched so hard during hazing that she was hospitalized with a broken femur, deep bone bruises and blood clots. Three students were arrested in that case and charged with hazing and battery.
The former band director, Julian White, who was fired after Mr. Champion’s death, suggested on Tuesday that this might have been an isolated case of homophobia. He said the bullying “could not have been predicted or prevented.”
“It is entirely possible that Champion’s tragic death was less about any ritualistic hazing and more tantamount to a hateful and fully conscious attempt to batter a young man because of his sexual orientation,” said Dr. White’s lawyer, Chuck Hobbs.
The line between hazing and homophobia is often blurry, said Shane L. Windmeyer, the executive director of Campus Pride, a national group for gay students, and author of several books about gay life on college campuses.
“Hazing often gets taken to a new level when its against someone who is gay,” he said. “Obviously someone’s own prejudice or fears will motivate them to haze and, in many cases, to take more extreme actions.”
From a legal perspective, Mr. Champion’s family wants assurances that the university and the band director are held responsible. If the death is tried as a hate crime, it could carry harsher criminal sentences. But in a civil lawsuit, it could undermine the family’s argument, allowing the university to distinguish a hate crime from a longer tradition of hazing, Mr. Chestnut said.
Mr. Champion did not want to be known for being gay, his mother said. “Robert was not known or defined by his sexual orientation,” she said. “He was more known for his stance against hazing.”
The family also announced Tuesday that it is suing the company that owns the bus on which the hazing allegedly occurred. Mr. Champion was hazed while the bus was parked and running, and no driver was aboard to supervise, Mr. Chestnut said.
Ray Land, the president of the bus company, Fabulous Coach Line, said his employees had followed standard procedures and responded immediately to the emergency.
“As soon as we were notified there was an issue, we responded and helped in the emergency,” he said. “We did everything within our power to keep our passengers safe.”