Florida A&M University's band director, Julian E. White, was fired this week following the death of a drum major.
LITHONIA, Ga. -- A lawyer for the family of Robert Champion, a Florida university drum major who died this month in what officials have called a hazing-related death, said Monday he will file a lawsuit against the school.
"We are intending to file a lawsuit to get answers" about hazing at Florida Agriculture and Mechanical University, lawyer Chris Chestnut told reporters. "We are concerned about the culture of coverup, that hazing has been covered up at the Band FAMU for generations. So, it's time now that we expose the truth, eradicate this culture, and come up with creative remedies on how to continue the excellence of FAMU's band, but without hazing."
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Chestnut said he was not at liberty to discuss the facts of the case, and noted that the medical examiner has not issued a report on the cause of death of the 26-year-old musician. But, he added, the facts that have emerged to date "point to the fact that hazing was a cause of Robert Champion's death, and it was under FAMU's watch."
He said he could not address the scope of the lawsuit, but added, "I can tell you that FAMU will be named in it."
Chestnut described hazing at the school as a don't-ask, don't-tell culture. "The family's message today is: Please, tell."
Because FAMU is a state institution, it is protected by sovereign immunity, which means that Chestnut must file a notice of intention to sue as a prerequisite to the suit, the lawyer said. "After a six-month window, we will file a lawsuit," he added.
"He loved the band -- so much, I always called him Mr. Band," Champion's mother, Pam Champion, told reporters. "That was his life."
She added that she was in suburban Atlanta, where the family lives, when she got a phone call informing her of her son's death. The call came shortly after her son had called to say he was coming home for Thanksgiving. "I thought it was some kind of mean joke. ... Maybe it's the wrong kid, maybe it's somebody else."
"They had no idea of anticipating that he'd be coming to Willie Watkins' Funeral Home when he came back to Atlanta," Chestnut said. "That's not what you send your kid to college for."
"It needs to stop," Pam Champion said. "No one wants to hear on a phone call that your son collapsed and died."
Champion became ill at an Orlando hotel after a game on Nov. 20. He reportedly threw up in the parking lot and started complaining of not being able to breathe, authorities said.
Champion was taken to a hospital, where he was pronounced dead.
Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings told CNN last week that hazing was involved, but added that authorities were trying to determine an official cause of death. Under Florida law, any death that occurs as the result of hazing is a third-degree felony.
After the death, FAMU President James H. Ammons suspended all band performances and said he will convene a task force "to determine if there are any unauthorized and questionable activities associated with the culture of the Marching 100."
In addition, FAMU moved to fire longtime band director Julian E. White. White had led the 420-member band since 1998 and has hired an attorney to fight for his job.
On Wednesday, Gov. Rick Scott sent a letter to Florida Department of Law Enforcement Commissioner Gerald Bailey asking the department to join the investigation "to assure that the circumstances leading to Mr. Champion's death become fully known, and that if there are individuals directly or indirectly responsible for this death, they are appropriately brought to justice and held accountable."
Ammons has acknowledged that at least 30 band members were let go this semester because of possible involvement in hazing.