FAMU hazing incident brings lawsuit, criticism

Clarinet player Bria Shante Hunter had to decide which option was more painful: turning in the FAMU bandmates whom, she now says, had administered a serious beating, or walking around on a broken leg.

For a week the Atlanta freshman tried living with a fractured femur. But on Nov. 7 she reported the incident to FAMU band director Julian White, who sent her to the hospital and referred the case to the campus police.

Hunter told authorities that her injuries -- including blood clots as well as the cracked thigh bone -- were the result of being struck repeatedly for failing to live up to the credo of the Red Dawg Order, a sub-group made up solely of students from the Atlanta area, within the renowned and prestigious FAMU Marching 100. The existence of the order is one outward indication of the profound ties between Atlanta and the band many regard as the best in the world.

The consequences of Hunter's decision to come forward -- she has decided she can no longer remain at the school, and will relinquish the $85,000 scholarship she won as a member of the band -- illustrate the powerful and complex bonds that tie members to the band.

The Red Dawg Order, a fraternal organization for Atlantans playing in marching bands at HBCUs around the country, began in the 1990s on the FAMU campus, according to Ormond Moore, assistant director of bands at R.L. Osborne High School in Marietta.

Moore said there are perhaps 21 chapters at predominantly black schools around the South. "It was supposed to breed you to be a better musician," he said, "to teach you the ins and outs. ... Somewhere along the line the situation has changed to become a pledging process."

Twelve days after Hunter told her story to White, another Atlantan in the band, drum major Robert Champion, died, reportedly after a similar hazing incident. No criminal charges have been filed in that incident, which is still under investigation. The president of the school has been reprimanded by the trustees and all band activities have been suspended.  Three students were suspended but later reinstated; two were from Atlanta.

Monday, three FAMU band students were arrested and charged with assaulting Hunter. The defendants, Sean Hobson, 23, Aaron Golson, 19, and James Harris, 22, are all from Atlanta. Hunter and Hobson were both students at Southwest DeKalb High School, a school that boasts a powerhouse among Atlanta marching bands; Harris attended Druid Hills High School.

Lawyers for the defendants said Tuesday at a hearing in Tallahassee that they will fight the charges.

Hunter said members of the Red Dawg Order forced her to lift her legs in marching position while they punched her upper thighs and and struck her with spatulas, book binders and metal rulers.

At a news conference Tuesday, her attorney, Atlantan B.J. Bernstein, announced that Hunter will file a lawsuit against the university, which Bernstein accused of failing to correct a problem that administrators have known about for more than a decade.

“This open secret at FAMU once and for all must end," she said.

FAMU officials had no immediate comment Tuesday but said they were drafting a formal statement.

Hunter, 18, was not present at the afternoon news conference in Bernstein’s Atlanta law office. Bernstein said she was still at school, completing her last exam.

“Parents trust schools," Bernstein said. " [Schools] can’t block everything, but they can do a heck of a lot.”

While some former FAMU band members acknowledge that some forms of initiation exist at the school -- students might be forced to get haircuts or run laps -- few would speak openly about anything more severe.

Students associated with the Red Dawg Order have kept silent in the wake of the news reports. Indeed, the topic of  hazing seems to be met with a code of silence. An AJC Twitter request to speak with Red Dawg members drew derisive responses. Students seemed outraged that any person would consider “snitching” on other band members.

Even former band members who had little but good things to say about their experiences would speak only on the condition of anonymity. One former snare drum player who marched in the early 1990s said he is heartbroken by the hazing allegations, saying they bring shame to what has been a meaningful and outstanding program.

“It is a slap in the face to the late Dr. William P. Foster, who founded the band, for all the thousands of individuals who marched in the band, for Dr. Julian E. White’s name and for the university as a whole,” he said.

The drummer, who wanted to be identified only as James, said participating in the band is among his greatest accomplishments, even 20 years later. “You have to be the cream of the crop” to earn a spot, he said.

He said he is disappointed more people aren’t speaking about what may have become a problem in recent years with hazing.

“That is not what we were about, what the band is about, not what the university is about,” he said.

The code of secrecy is one of the factors that allows hazing to continue, said Mary Madden,  associate research professor at the University of Maine, and  co-author of a 2008 study on hazing at college campuses.

Because retribution is likely, "It takes a lot of courage to come forward," said Madden, who reviewed online responses from 11,000 students and interviewed staff and students at 21 college campuses around the country.

"Robert Champion's death points out two major things," said Madden. "One, that hazing happens across a range of student groups and two, it can be harmful or even deadly."