Florida A&M and the Death of Accountability and Caring

By William K. Black

Florida A&M (FAMU) has just filed a legal pleading that exemplifies the moral bankruptcy and the shirking of accountability by elites that has become emblematic of the last ten years.  The headline of the LA Times article says it all:  “Robert Champion was to blame for his own hazing death, FAMU says.”  The context is FAMU’s motion to dismiss the Champion’s parents’ “wrongful death” suit against FAMU.

“No public university or college has a legal duty to protect an adult student from the result of their own decision to participate in a dangerous activity while off-campus and after retiring from university-sponsored events,” states the document prepared by Richard E. Mitchell, an attorney with the GrayRobinson law firm hired by FAMU.

The university argues that Champion chose to participate in the hazing to impress other members of the group.

The background is that FAMU’s band was notorious for its “hazing.”  The “hazing” consisted of a series of violent assaults, and in the case of Robert Champion it proved murderous.  A band member who wished to obtain a leadership position in the band was required by other band members to submit to a violent assault.  FAMU’s leadership knew of the coercive and vicious nature of its band’s assaults and took some ineffectual efforts to reduce them, but FAMU’s primary response was to seek to limit its liability.

MIAMI — Two decades ago, [Dr. Julian White] 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.”

Yes, “very difficult for the university and the band” – but rather more difficult for the student who died and his or her family.

FAMU required students in the band to sign a “Hazing and Harassment Agreement” in order to set up a legal defense for FAMU in case the students in the band were killed or injured by the assaults.

The university’s motion also points out that Champion signed a “Hazing and Harassment Agreement” months before his death in which he acknowledged understanding the “dangers of participating in hazing, either as a hazer or a hazee.”

“It is undisputed that Mr. Champion knew that existence of the danger (hazing) of which Plaintiff now complains, he realized and appreciated the possibility of injuries as a result of such danger, and notwithstanding the opportunity to avoid the danger simply by not showing up at the designated place and time, he deliberately exposed himself to the danger,” the motion said.

FAMU knew that students submitted to the assaults because doing so was essential to advance within the band.

FAMU did not limit its motion to dismiss the lawsuit to this disingenuous claim that if Champion “simply … [did] not show up” to be assaulted he would have “avoid[ed] the danger” – a danger he had admitted he was aware of by signing FAMU’s Hazing and Harassment Agreement.  FAMU’s position is that all Chapman had to do to avoid being assaulted was give up on his goal of leading FAMU’s marching band.  FAMU’s motion went much further – it labels Chapman a criminal and the students (and non-students – FAMU’s band, improperly, had over 100 non-student “members”) who assaulted him “co-conspirators” with him in assaulting him.  The ABC report explains:

The school called the other band members on the bus “Mr. Champion’s co-conspirators” and said there was no allegation or evidence that Champion reported the hazing event or tried to stop anyone from participating.

“Florida’s sovereign immunity bars Plaintiff’s claim against FAMU because Mr. Champion agreed, conspired, combined or confederated with others to do unlawful acts, and encouraged, requested or helped cause others to commit such unlawful acts.”

The filing said that even if one assumes that Champion did not commit any crimes in relation to the hazing, he at least “participated as a hazee.”

I’ve represented defendants and plaintiffs in tort actions.  I understand fully why FAMU’s lawyers designed the forms the band members signed to protect FAMU from liability and I understand the defenses FAMU’s lawyers have raised in their pleading.  I understand how desperate public university finances are and that the liability FAMU faces in the wrongful death action could be extraordinary.  But as FAMU’s legal counsel I would have counseled it not to make any of these arguments.  Fiscal bankruptcy for a university is a terrible thing.  Moral bankruptcy is fatal.  FAMU’s claim that it bears no legal responsibility to stop assaults on its students that are a de facto requirement for participating in university activities demonstrates that FAMU is a place where accountability goes to die.  FAMU has disgraced itself with this motion.  Parents should not entrust their children to senior university officials whose priority is avoiding liability rather than preventing vicious assaults on their students.  FAMU’s leadership should consult with its ethicists rather than its lawyers and should act in accordance with the university’s mission.  FAMU’s band’s website states this on it home page:

This organization has been polished and refined to perfection for the past 104 years under the guidance of its directors:

Band Motto

Qualities to live by to guide our thoughts and to rule our actions/lives:

“Highest Quality of CHARACTER”
“Achievement in ACADEMICS”
“Attainment in LEADERSHIP”
“Perfection in MUSICIANSHIP”
“Precision in MARCHING”
“Dedication to SERVICE”

The Florida A&M University Bands, a role model of excellence.

Some of the band members who are being prosecuted for the fatal assaults on Chapman performed at his funeral.  FAMU’s band’s failure to live up to its motto was total.

FAMU’s motto is: “Excellence With Caring.”  FAMU’s leadership has done an excellent job of making a mockery of “caring.”

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