Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Rush to judgment easy to do after tragedy

Everybody’s talking except those who know.

On Monday, Julian E. White proclaimed that he did nothing wrong with respect to the alleged hazing-related death of a FAMU drum major. The former director of bands made his side of the story known during a round of media interviews that no first-year law student would ever permit a client to give.

An earlier November 25 letter from White’s attorney, Charles E. Hobbs, claimed that “hazing within the Marching 100 has often been met with reckless indifference by White’s superior officers who often ignored his requests for assistance.”

While, I'm no lawyer, my father who is reminds me that "allegations are far from evidence."

White’s accusations against the university administration should give all of us some pause. Clearly, his main motive is to save his job and salvage his reputation (or at least what is left of it following the flurry of negative headlines).

That is why it is very troubling to see that the Florida Board of Governors has decided to investigate the FAMU administration based purely upon the facts that hazing is suspected in Robert D. Champion’s death and White says his superiors did not do enough to help him fight hazing.

“The events surrounding the tragic death of Robert Champion and allegations by Dr. White that he received little support despite repeatedly advising current and former university administrators of hazing activities within the Marching 100 band, is of grave concern to the Board of Governors,” BOG Chairwoman Ava L. Parker wrote in a letter to FAMU Board of Trustees Chairman Solomon L. Badger, III.

“We are asking Chancellor [Frank] Brogan to initiate an investigation to determine whether university administration took appropriate action to address the hazing activities referenced by Dr. White and any hazing activities in the student population at large,” Parker said.

Parker’s letter announcing the BOG investigation did not ask for President James H. Ammons’ response to White’s allegations. Nor did it ask for an explanation regarding why the administration decided to terminate White.

Why has the BOG concluded that allegations made an employee who just received a termination notice are legitimate enough to serve as the basis for an investigation? Doesn’t basic fairness require the board to get Ammons’ side of the story before determining whether White’s accusations are solid enough to warrant a probe?

“While Dr. White has had a distinguished career in music education and administration within the university as director of bands, I did not feel there was competence involving reporting allegations of hazing within the Department of Music and the Marching 100,” Ammons said in a quote published by USA Today.

Ammons’ charge that White failed to exercise competence in reporting alleged hazing is just as serious as White’s charge that his requests for assistance were often ignored. Why has the BOG chosen to exempt White’s actions (or possible inactions) within the music program from its investigation? This omission makes it look like the BOG has already picked a side in this controversy.

FAMUans, the media, the BOG, and the general public should avoid taking sides or making assumptions before all the facts are on the table.

Charles Chestnut, the lawyer for the Champion family, has said that: “Ultimately, music, or at least the FAMU band, took [Champion’s] life.”

The Orange County Florida Sheriff’s Department is still investigating the death of Champion. Investigators say he was hazed after the Florida Classic football game in Orlando but have not determined whether hazing was the actual cause of death. That investigation is still in-progress. No charges have been filed. No arrests have been made. The results of a preliminary autopsy were inconclusive.

Champion’s death is devastating and his family should receive full justice if the law enforcement investigation and judicial process determine that foul play took his life. But there is a long way to go in the legal process before anyone can say what happened or who is to blame.

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