Florida A&M president resigns over hazing death

TALLAHASSEE/ORLANDO Wed Jul 11, 2012 5:40pm EDT

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TALLAHASSEE/ORLANDO (Reuters) - Florida A&M University President James Ammons announced on Wednesday he will resign from his post, following June's no-confidence vote by the university's board of trustees after the hazing death of a university drum major.

The announcement came shortly before parents of Robert Champion, a FAMU marching band member who died in November after being hazed, filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the university near the Florida panhandle.

Ammons said his last day would be October 11, but he would like to remain on as a tenured professor after that date.

Champion, 26, died on a band charter bus after the university's renowned Marching 100' band traveled from its Tallahassee campus to Orlando to participate in the annual "Battle of the Bands" and the "Florida Classic" football game between two historically black universities.

Officials determined he died after being brutally hazed.

Thirteen band members have been charged in Champion's death. Of those, 11 face felony hazing charges and could face up to six years in prison. Two others were charged with misdemeanors.

In the lawsuit filed on Wednesday, Champion's parents alleged that FAMU leaders tolerated hazing that had hospitalized three other band members and was implicated at least 107 other incidents since 1983.

They also alleged that the university failed to act three days before Champion's death on a proposal by the school's dean of students to immediately suspend the band in an effort to tackle the hazing problem.

Champion's mother, Pamela, welcomed Ammons resignation at a press conference in Orlando late Wednesday. "They (FAMU) need to clean house and that's the only way to move forward," she said.

The family created the Robert D. Champion Drum Major for Change Foundation to eradicate hazing and strengthen laws against it.

The allegations against FAMU were included in an amendment to a lawsuit initially filed in February against the charter bus company, Fabulous Coach Lines of Branford, Florida, and bus driver Wendy Millette for allowing hazing to occur.

The amended lawsuit also included more specific details of the Champions' allegation that Millette facilitated regular hazing rituals by parking the bus in an isolated area and discouraging other bus drivers from intervening.

Although other bus drivers complained to the bus company management, they were told to "ignore it and that FAMU was paying for it and could do what they want," according to the complaint.

On the night Champion died, according to the complaint, Millette stood guard outside the bus during Champion's hazing, and forced Champion back into the bus when he came to the door vomiting.

Ray Land, owner of the bus company, told Reuters on Wednesday only that he hadn't seen the amended complaint and did not comment after Reuters emailed him a copy.

The university has since indefinitely suspended the marching band, known for its high-stepping showmanship. It is widely credited with a major role in transforming the style of college bands from traditional military precision to more innovative pageantry.

In June, the Board of Trustees gave Ammons a vote of no-confidence, with eight of 12 trustees saying they had lost faith in his ability to lead the historically black college during the tumultuous times.

"After considerable thought, introspection and conversations with my family, I have decided to resign," Ammons wrote in a resignation letter to FAMU Board of Trustees chairman Solomon Badgers.

"Now there are new challenges that must be met head on," Ammons added. "I am determined to move all of the major challenges toward resolution and move our university toward success."

Ammons, a Florida A&M graduate who became university president in 2007, has also come under fire for other missteps during his administration, including reports of fraudulent audits and some improprieties by-upper level administrators.

Ammons was not implicated in any of the incidents but several trustees who voted in favor of no-confidence said he ultimately should be held responsible.

Badgers praised Ammons' decision, which he said was in the university's best interest.

"I am saddened by President Ammons' decision to resign, but it is his choice to do so," Badger said in a statement. "Given all that has transpired, it seems to be in the best interest of the University and I applaud him for putting FAMU ahead of his personal goals."

(Editing by David Adams and Vicki Allen)

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