For five months, the Rattle nation held its breath and waited for the other shoe to drop. Last Wednesday, it did -- with a clatter, not a thud.
The Orange County State Attorney announced that 13 people were being charged in connection with the hazing death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion. It’s called the biggest hazing case in the country’s history. It might just be.
After all the whispers and speculation, 13 people will spend time behind bars, even if for just a few hours, for the beating death of the 26-year-old Georgia resident. But the fallout will go even further. Careers have been ruined, the Marching 100 band silenced. More heads will roll before this ends.
In a nationally televised press conference, State Attorney Lawson Lamar said what every sane person should be thinking.
“Hazing is a term for bullying,” Lamar warned. “Hazing is bullying with a tradition, a tradition we cannot bear in America.”
Hazing is bullying with college credit. It is also the kind of extracurricular activity that happens too often and is acceptable in too many circles.
Unfortunately, too many of our students are willing to be hazed and bullied in order to fit it in. The red marks from the bumps and bruises their schoolmates inflict are less hurtful than the red ink their professors leave on their writing assignments. The Greek letters and patches on their jackets and t-shirts mean far more than A's and B's.
We’d like to think that Robert Champion’s death will change that. No way. The benefits far outweigh the risks. There is not enough deterrence. Even if someone dies when you are hazing them, you aren’t called a murderer. You won’t even face manslaughter charges. Eleven of the 13 suspects face charges of hazing resulting in death, a third-degree felony, and two first-degree misdemeanor hazing charges. Two of the suspects each face a single misdemeanor hazing charge. If they have no criminal record, the worst they could do is six years in prison. That’s a small price to pay for robbing parents of a chance to see their son don the green cap and gown.
Not surprisingly, Champion’s parents are disappointed with the leniency of the charges their son’s killers face. But Lamar said the evidence doesn’t support murder or manslaughter charges. Unfortunately, like our infamous Stand Your Ground law, state hazing statutes tie the hands of prosecutors and police.
Florida toughened its hazing law in 2005 following the death of Chad Meredith, a fraternity pledge at the University of Miami. But Meredith drowned after he drank too much. No one laid a hand on him. What happened to Robert Champion was something very different.
“The death . . . is nothing short of an American tragedy,” Lamar said at the press conference. “No one should have expected that his college experience would include being pummeled to death.”
There is no moral equivalence between beating someone to death and someone drinking himself to death. One is hazing, the other pure thuggery.
There have been calls to end the culture of hazing at FAMU. Before that happens, we have to eradicate the thuggery. It doesn’t belong on FAMU or any college campus.
Andrew Skerritt is an assistant professor of journalism at Florida A&M University and the author of Ashamed to Die: Silence, Denial and the AIDS Epidemic in the South. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on twitter at andrewjskerrit