ATLANTA (AP) — Florida A&M University's insistence that it is not to blame for a drum major's death during a hazing ritual shows school officials are not taking responsibility for the safety of students, the band member's parents said Thursday.
Pam and Robert Champion Sr. said at a news conference in Atlanta that they were disappointed by court documents filed Monday by FAMU in response to their lawsuit against the school. The university said in its filing that 26-year-old Robert Champion, as a top leader in the band, should have refused to participate in the ritual. The school asked a judge to toss the lawsuit or at least to delay action on it until criminal charges against band members are resolved. Twelve former members have pleaded not guilty to charges of felony hazing.
"As a mother, I have to wonder what kind of people are we entrusting our students to," Pam Champion said. "They clearly didn't care about my son, who thought the world of this school, who would always promote it and talk it up. Robert did all the right things. The school didn't do him right."
Her husband called the school's response a "slap in the face."
"This is an opportunity for the school to say we do have problems and we're going to fix it, but instead they're in denial, so I say FAMU beware," he said.
Robert Champion died in November after he was beaten by fellow members of the famed Marching 100 band aboard a charter bus parked outside an Orlando hotel. The school said in its filing that no public university or college has a duty to protect an adult student from what happens as a result of that person's own decisions to participate in dangerous activities off campus and outside of university-sponsored events.
"FAMU is not 'blaming' anyone for this tragic loss; rather, the university has asked the court to decide the legal question of whether Florida's taxpayers can be held financially liable to Mr. Champion's Estate according to the facts of the case as detailed in the pleadings and exhibits of record," Richard Mitchell, an attorney with the GrayRobinson law firm hired by FAMU, wrote in an email Thursday.
On the same day that the Champions spoke out, FAMU amended its legal filings. The new motion filed with the court removed a statement that taxpayers should not be liable for, referring to Robert Champion, "the ultimate result of his own imprudent, avoidable and tragic decision and death." However, attorneys with FAMU did also file new evidence that showed Champion took part in a band leadership workshop where it was stressed that hazing would not be tolerated.
Chris Chestnut, a lawyer representing the Champions, said the school is refusing to address the root problem.
"FAMU wants to make this about Robert Champion. The Champions have lost their son. This is about the decades of hazing that led up to Robert's death and the decades beyond this point where there's an opportunity for FAMU to rid itself of hazing and still have a very successful band program."
The lawsuit was filed by the Champions, who live in suburban Atlanta. University trustees had discussed trying to mediate the lawsuit, but the school's response this week may have doomed that effort. Chestnut said the lawsuit needs to go forward so the school is held accountable.
"This family is not filing this lawsuit for jackpot justice," Chestnut said. "We're filing this lawsuit for a legacy. Robert Champion can't be a drum major this season. That was taken from him, but he can be a drum major for justice now."
The Champions claim university officials did not take action to stop hazing even though a school dean proposed suspending the band because of hazing three days before their son died. In its response, the university denied that any specific proposal or recommendation was made regarding suspending the band before Champion's death.
The Champion lawsuit also notes that school officials allowed nonstudents to play in the band and asserts that school officials fell short in enforcing anti-hazing policies and did not keep a close eye on band members to prevent hazing.
The university in the last several months has instituted a long list of new policies, including limiting the Marching 100 to just FAMU students and putting in new academic policies. Beginning in spring 2013, students will be required to sign an anti-hazing pledge before they're allowed to register for classes.
Associated Press writer Gary Fineout in Tallahassee contributed to this report.