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Former State Senator Recalls Hazing at FAMU 45 Years Ago

6:18 PM, Dec 2, 2011   |    comments
Former state Sen. Al Lawson hopes to help put an end to hazing on college campuses everywhere. He says, "It's really out of hand."
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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Former state Sen. Al Lawson attended Florida A&M University in the 1960s and was aware of hazing in fraternities at the time.

In fact, Lawson said he was ready to join a college fraternity but when the initiation started to turn physical one night, he decided not to join.

Lawson is one of eight people selected to serve on a task force to investigate whether a possible culture of hazing on the campus. FAMU President James Ammons appointed the task force following the death of Marching 100 band member Robert Champion, who police said they believe died as a result of hazing.

On Friday, Ammons postponed the work of the task force. He didn't want its mission to conflict with other investigations already under way.

The Florida Department of Law Enforcement is helping with a criminal probe into Champion's death, while the state Board of Governors is reviewing whether FAMU administrators worked hard enough to prevent hazing on campus.

Lawson agrees with the postponement. He said the task force must ultimately focus on the broader issue of how to put an end to hazing on all college campuses.

"It's really out of hand and people have a tendency to kind of sweep it under the rug. But now what you want to do is eliminate hazing altogether at any university."

Lawson attended FAMU from 1966 to 1970. He said everyone knew back then there was hazing in fraternities and if you wanted to be a member, you'd have to endure it.

"We knew what was happening and we knew, when you see kids come into the dormitory late at night, 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning looking like they were all beat up, we knew things were happening. But it was something that you accepted as a part of college life."

Hazing cases have plagued FAMU, and other universities, for decades. Now Lawson will get the chance to figure out how to end it once and for all.

Within the FAMU band, he thinks it may be time to stop giving so much power to the student section leaders who are responsible for certain areas of the band. He wonders if it's time for administrative changes at the university.

But clearly hazing is deeply embedded in some collegiate traditions and, Lawson said, in the African American community.

"Within the African American community, it is something that has existed for a very long time...," he said. "It stems back a long ways, goes back to the way people were treated... people need to belong to organizations and (do) whatever it takes in order to be a part of those organizations."

Ammons expelled four students from the university this week in connection with the death of Champion but did not say how they are related to the case, nor did he reveal their names.

Champion died Nov. 19 after the Marching 100 performed at the Florida Classic game in Orlando. He was vomiting and complaining he could not breathe before collapsing on a band bus.

Gov. Rick Scott called the suspected hazing death "horrible" and said he wants to take action that ensures something like this never happens again.

Scott directed the Florida Department of Law Enforcement to investigate the death. He's also asking state university presidents to review their current hazing and harassment policies.

"We cannot have another child, another student, die this way. No one anticipates sending their child off to school and having any pressure like this. I have no idea of the facts and so I hope that people didn't do anything inappropriate but we'll do the investigation," he said. 

Scott said he has not talked with Ammons since Champion's death. Asked if he has confidence in Ammons' ability to handle the situation at FAMU, Scott just said he thinks his decision to put the FDLE on the case is the right way to proceed.

Also on Friday, a group of Tallahassee-area pastors called on the presidents of historically black colleges across the country to convene a national task force to study hazing policies at their schools.

Rev. R.B. Holmes of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church is leading the effort. "I think that most, if not all, black colleges are dealing with hazing and now we are going to really strengthen policies and programs to totally and truly eradicate and eliminate hazing as we know it."

The pastors are also planning to hold a prayer service next week in memory of Robert Champion.

First Coast News

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