MIAMI — Two decades ago, the now-ousted director of the Florida A&M band warned in a letter about the dangers of hazing among the famed "Marching 100" ensemble, saying "it would be very difficult for the university and the band should someone become killed or hurt."
In the following years, however, hazing seemed to become a bigger — if not a more public — problem. Police investigated several serious cases and students were arrested. Antihazing workshops were held. Dozens of band members were suspended. University officials and the marching band community were keenly aware of the persistent hazing, yet it continued and is believed to have played a role in the death this month of a 26-year-old drum major, Robert Champion.
Champion's death started a blame game of sorts, with the historically black college in Tallahassee firing its band director, Julian White, accusing him of "misconduct and/or incompetence." In turn, White released more than 150 pages of documents showing that he warned the university for years about what was going on.
The chair of the Board of Governors, which oversees Florida's public universities, wrote a letter to FAMU trustees Tuesday saying it would investigate whether the university administration took appropriate action to address White's concerns.
A former band member said that White looked for ways to eradicate a culture of hazing in many instrument sections. White invited band members to anonymously report hazing and even had police come along on some away games, former drum major Timothy Barber told AP.
In 2001, trumpeter Marcus Parker was paddled so severely that he ended up hospitalized with kidney damage. White had police escort the trumpet section off the field to be interrogated to show he would not tolerate hazing, Barber said.
About a dozen people pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor and received probation in that case, though it's not clear what actions, if any, the university took to punish them.
After the arrests, White approached Barber for help in getting rid of hazing. One area he focused on: A white wall in the band's practice field where nicknames for the instrument sections were prominently displayed. Becoming a member of these groups — the clarinets were known as "The Clones" and the tubas were the "White Whales" — meant becoming part of a tradition and a band that has played Super Bowls, the Grammys and presidential inaugurations.
But some sections had their own violent initiation rituals. White bought buckets of white paint and asked Barber to cover up the section nicknames on the wall.
"Tim, we have to find a way to eradicate these subsections of the band," Barber said White told him. "Cover the names so they see this is not something supported by the band staff."
While White documented his efforts to stop the hazing, it's possible he could've done more on the front lines, according to Richard Sigal, a retired sociology professor at County College of Morris in Randolph, N.J., who has studied hazing.
"Maybe he just had a problem that was beyond his ability to control it," Sigal said. But in general, "If the person at the top issued a zero-tolerance policy for hazing and oversaw what the people under him were doing, then there was no hazing."
The details of Champion's death are unclear. Authorities, the school and an attorney for his family said hazing played a role, but no one has been willing to shed any more light on what actually happened Nov. 19 after the football team lost to its rival Bethune-Cookman. Police have said only that Champion started vomiting and complained he couldn't breathe before he collapsed on a band bus outside their hotel in Orlando.
The university has announced an independent review and Gov. Rick Scott has asked state investigators to join the sheriff's department in its investigation.
University officials declined interview requests, but president James Ammons, who earned his bachelor's and master's from FAMU, issued a statement late Tuesday.
"The university has a zero-tolerance policy toward hazing. Period. But it is becoming increasingly clear that hazing continues to exist — at FAMU and across the country at other universities, colleges and other elements — because hazing survives and thrives in a culture of secrecy and a conspiracy of silence. I am committed to illuminating this dark corner of Florida A&M University and the American culture … illuminating it and eradicating it."
White is fighting his dismissal, which is why he submitted the documents to the school, including dozens of suspension letters for hazing over the last decade, and communications alerting university police.
"Our incidents are few, but nevertheless hazing and harassment continues to be a problem," White wrote the then director of bands William P. Foster in 1989 after a hazing death involving a fraternity at Morehouse University. "It would be very difficult for the university and the band should someone become killed or hurt because of hazing."
In the weeks before Champion's death, White suspended 26 band members for hazing. On Nov. 17 — just two days before Champion died — he sent a letter to alumni, saying while most of them were positive and encouraging of former band members, some "return and perpetuate the myth of various sectional names."
"You should not return and look down on people who follow university regulations by not participating in sub-organizations," White wrote. "This is extremely important and I call on all alumni to assist the band and myself in eradicating all vestiges of hazing in the Marching `100' band.' "
Barber, who rose to head drum major and was in the band from 1996 to 2002, said he was never hazed, nor did he participate in it.
He said drum majors were like the generals of the band who tried to keep everyone in order, which makes Champion's death puzzling. At 26, Champion was likely one of the older band members because he didn't enter college until a year after high school and struggled at times to stay at the university because of his grades.
Barber in part blames alumni for not taking a stronger stand. Of about two dozen people contacted, he was the first who agreed to openly speak about hazing within the band.
Barber went back to FAMU this year and practiced with Champion and the other drum majors. White told him Champion could become the head drum major. Barber also noticed the section nicknames on the white wall were still painted over.
"We need to do more," Barber said.