Tag Archives: hazing

Navy officer fired over anti-gay harassment

A Navy hazing case that led to the firing of the top enlisted officer aboard a nuclear submarine was sparked by gay jokes about a sailor who said another man tried to rape him while in a foreign port, according to an investigative report obtained by The Associated Press.

The report sheds light on a case that led to the reassignment of Master Chief Machinist’s Mate Charles Berry, who had been serving as “chief of the boat” on the Kings Bay, Ga.-based USS Florida.

The Navy announced March 30 that Capt. Stephen Gillespie had relieved Berry as chief, due to dereliction of duty. Aboard a submarine, the chief of the boat advises the commanding officer of issues involving enlisted sailors.

The Navy’s announcement said the case involved allegations of hazing aboard Florida, but gave no details. It said Berry was not involved in the hazing, but had knowledge of it and failed to inform his chain of command.

Lt. Brian Wierzbicki, spokesman for Kings Bay’s submarine force, said Saturday he did not immediately have a contact number for Berry. The AP left a voice mail message at a phone listed for a Charles Berry in St. Marys, Ga.

An investigative report obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act says the hazing was directed at a sailor who had reported that another man pulled a knife and tried to rape him while in the port at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean.

All names in the documents provided to The Associated Press were redacted.

The report says the sailor was generally well-liked on the ship and endured the torment for months because he thought it would eventually stop. Among other things, he was called a derogatory term for a gay person and referred to as “Brokeback,” a reference to the gay-themed movie “Brokeback Mountain.” In addition, someone posted a drawing of a stick figure being sexually assaulted.

Before a group training session on the repeal of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, the sailor was subjected to comments about coming out of the closet and asked when other sailors could meet his boyfriend and whether his boyfriend was Filipino, the nationality of the person he said tried to rape him.

The report says the sailors who made the derogatory comments didn’t realize their shipmate had a knife pulled on him or the psychological toll the comments were taking on him. After eight months of harassment in 2011, the sailor eventually wrote a note saying he had suicidal thoughts and that he could snap and hurt himself or someone else.

The report says there was a culture of hazing and sexual harassment aboard the submarine and there was inadequate knowledge about the Navy’s policies against it to stop the behavior before the sailor reached that point.

More counseling and training was ordered at all levels to avoid similar problems in the future.

“The Navy’s standards for personal behavior are very high and it demands that sailors are treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. When individuals fall short of this standard of professionalism and personal behavior, the Navy will take swift and decisive action to stop undesirable behavior, protect victims and hold accountable those who do not meet its standards,” the Navy said in the March 30 statement.

Berry was temporarily assigned to another post in Kings Bay. Several other junior sailors who participated in the harassment also faced disciplinary action, including loss of rank and pay.

Military suicides in response to hazing have recently gotten the attention of Congress. The nephew of Rep. Judy Chu, D-Calif., killed himself after enduring hazing by his fellow Marines in Afghanistan. A congressional hearing on military hazing was held earlier this year, and Chu is pushing a proposal to better track and define hazing in the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

“We’re talking about acts that can result in death, but if not death, then clearly trauma. These are folks that can have post-traumatic stress syndrome because of the acts of others,” Chu said. “These are peers administering justice to peers. What happened to the hierarchy that is supposed to be occurring in the military?”

The hazing episode is among a series of embarrassing incidents for the Navy’s submarine force that were addressed in a blog post this week by Vice Adm. John Richardson focusing on the importance of character.

“A violation by one seems to be a violation against all,” wrote Richardson, the Norfolk-based commander of the Navy’s submarine force.

The Navy recently started a training course to discuss real-life examples of bad personal decisions that other officers have made in the past.

The Navy also issued new guidelines earlier this month to ensure that future leaders are all held to the same leadership standards, regardless of their command, during job screening.

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Arrests made in death of gay FAMU drum major

There was no single blow, stomp or strike to Robert Champion’s bruised and battered body that killed him as he was pummeled by fellow Florida A&M University marching band members during a hazing ritual aboard a charter bus last fall.

Instead, the gay student’s death was caused by multiple blows from many individuals. That inability to pinpoint which blow ultimately caused the 26-year-old drum major’s death led authorities to charge 13 defendants this week with hazing rather than more serious counts like manslaughter or second-degree murder.

“His death is not linked to one sole strike but it is attributed to multiple blows,” said Orlando area State Attorney Lawson Lamar at a news conference announcing the charges.

The most sensational cases of hazing – or endurance rituals for new members of an organization – have typically involved fraternities, sororities or athletic teams, but the FAMU tragedy in November exposed a brutal tradition among marching bands at some colleges around the United States.

Champion’s death has jeopardized the future of FAMU’s legendary marching band, which has performed at the Grammys, presidential inaugurations and Super Bowls and represented the United States in Paris at the 200th anniversary of the French Revolution. FAMU, based in Tallahassee, has suspended the band and set up a task force on curtailing hazing.

Champion’s mother, Pam, said May 3 that the only way to stop hazing in FAMU’s marching band is to disband the program until the root of the hazing problem is addressed.

“You’ve got to clean house,” Pam Champion said in Atlanta. “That’s the only thing.”

Champion’s father, Robert Champion Sr., added: “The band should not be on the field until they clean house. Until they get it completely clean. There are 400 other students who are also in the band, and the same thing can happen to them.”

Some legal experts said they believe Lamar could have filed manslaughter, or even second-degree murder counts, against the participants who conducted the hazing after the FAMU marching band had performed at a football game against its rival school.

“The prosecutor in this case had an opportunity to do something, to send a stronger message, a deserved message based on the conduct,” said Tamara Lave, a University of Miami law professor. “And the prosecutor didn’t.”

Lamar said his office didn’t have the evidence to bring more serious charges.

“The testimony obtained to date does not support a charge of murder, in that it does not contain the elements of murder,” he said. “We can prove participation in hazing and a death. We do not have a blow or a shot or a knife thrust that killed Mr. Champion. It is an aggregation of things which exactly fit the Florida statute as written by the Legislature.”

Champion’s family and their attorney said they were extremely disappointed that murder charges were not filed.

“Here while all eyes are on Florida was the opportunity to set the stage and say, ‘This won’t be accepted,’” Pam Champion said.

“I was not happy with felony hazing charges. That word, hazing, just doesn’t fit it.”

Eleven defendants were charged with hazing resulting in death, a felony, and misdemeanor offenses that all together could bring nearly six years in prison. Two others face misdemeanor charges.

It was not immediately clear whether those charged were all students or whether they included faculty members or others involved in the road trip.

Their names were being withheld until all of them were arrested, but authorities around the state were starting to take them into custody. Two men – 23-year-old Caleb Jackson and 24-year-old Rikki Wills – were arrested on May 2 in Leon County. Wills was allowed to leave jail that night after posting a $15,000 bond.

Brian Jones turned himself in on May 2 in Hillsborough County. He was released after posting a $15,000 bond. His attorney, Alisia Adamson, said he would plead not guilty.

A Leon County, however, refused May 3 to let Jackson leave jail because he’s already on probation for battery.

Other defendants who had turned themselves in by May 3 afternoon were: Jesse Baskin, 20, and Benjamin McNamee, Shawn Turner, 26, and Harold Finley, 20. All but Finley had bonded out.

Hazing in Florida was upgraded to a felony in 2005 following the death of a University of Miami student four years earlier. Chad Meredith was drunk and died trying to swim across a lake at the behest of his fraternity brothers. No charges were filed, but a civil jury ordered the fraternity to pay Meredith’s parents $12 million.

Champion had bruises on his chest, arms, shoulder and back and died of internal bleeding, Lamar said. Witnesses told emergency dispatchers the drum major was vomiting before he was found unresponsive aboard the bus.

The prosecutor gave no motive for the beating. But witnesses said Champion might have been targeted because he opposed the routine hazing that went on in the marching band or because he was gay, according his family’s attorney.

Hazing has long been practiced in marching bands, particularly at historically black colleges like FAMU in the South, where the band is often as revered as the football team and members are campus celebrities.

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Criminal charges coming in Florida hazing death

At least five people will face criminal charges in the death of a gay Florida A&M University drum major from who died after being hazed aboard a band bus in Orlando last fall, authorities said on May 1.

Orange County Sheriff Jerry Demings told The Associated Press that multiple defendants will be charged in 26-year-old Robert Champion’s death, although he refused to say what the charges are. A press conference was set for 2 p.m. EST May 2.

Prosecutors have built five cases against defendants with charges ranging from misdemeanors to felony charges, said Danielle Tavernier, a spokeswoman for the State Attorney’s Office in Orlando. She refused to specify the charges pending an announcement by prosecutors.

Prosecutors sometime cluster defendants by case, meaning the number of defendants could be higher than five, said Bob Dekle, a University of Florida law professor.

The pending charges will bring more scrutiny to a culture of hazing at FAMU and other schools. The death of Champion, a graduate of Southwest DeKalb High, was ruled a homicide by medical examiners, and the case has jeopardized the future of FAMU’s legendary marching band and shaken the school’s Tallahassee campus.

“The family’s position is if indeed there are charges tomorrow, it’s been a long time in coming,” Christopher Chestnut, an attorney for Champion’s parents, said. “It is bittersweet. Obviously it’s comforting to know that someone will be held accountable for Robert’s murder, but it’s also disconcerting to think of the impact of the future of these students. This is just unfortunate all the way around.”

Chestnut said family members are disappointed that authorities didn’t give them enough advance notice to travel from Georgia to Florida to attend the press conference to announce the results of the investigation. But he said the family is also “thankful there is some movement on this case after five months of delay.”

No arrests were made May 1. Both Demings, attending a meeting in Tallahassee, and Tavernier, in Orlando, said the arrests would likely take place in multiple jurisdictions.

The medical examiner’s office in Orlando found last year that Champion had bruises to his chest, arms, shoulder and back and internal bleeding that caused him to go into shock, which killed him.

Detectives say Champion was hazed on Nov. 19 by other band members on a bus parked outside an Orlando hotel, following a performance. Witnesses told emergency dispatchers that Champion was vomiting before he was found unresponsive aboard the bus. Hazing that involves bodily harm is a third-degree felony in Florida.

Champion’s parents have sued the company that owns the bus where the hazing took place. In a civil suit, Champion’s family alleges that the bus driver stood guard outside the bus while the hazing took place. The bus company owner initially said the bus driver was helping other band members with their equipment when the hazing took place.

Witnesses in the Champion case have told his parents he might have been targeted because he opposed the culture of hazing they say has long existed in the band, the parents’ attorney has said. It has also been suggested to them that Champion was targeted because he was gay and a candidate for chief drum major.

In a January interview with the AP, Champion’s parents dismissed the notion that his sexual orientation brought on the attack, which was to their knowledge the first time he’d ever been hazed.

“The main reason that we heard is because he was against hazing, and he was totally against it,” Champion’s father, Robert Champion Sr. of Decatur, Ga., said in an interview.

FAMU has suspended the band and launched a task force to recommend steps it could take to curtail hazing.

Three FAMU band members were arrested in the Oct. 31 beating of a female band member whose thigh was broken.

And on Tuesday, a lawyer for two FAMU music professors who allegedly were present during the unrelated hazing of band fraternity pledges in early 2010 said they have been forced out.

Both faculty members had been placed on paid administrative leave in late March after a Tallahassee Police Department report quoted witnesses as saying they were on hand when the hazing occurred at the home of one of the professors.

Diron Holloway, the band’s director of saxophones, and Anthony Simons, an assistant professor of music, resigned last week after receiving notices that they had 10 days to contest their impending dismissals, said attorney Mutaqee Akbar.

“They both decided to resign from the university and pursue other career opportunities,” Akbar said.

He said no one from the school discussed the allegations with them.

Both want to remain in education but plan no further action related to their employment at Florida A&M, Akbar said.

The police report said pledges to the Kappa Kappa Psi band fraternity were slapped on the neck and back and may have been paddled in early 2010. It listed both faculty members as suspects but said no charges were filed because a two-year statute of limitations for misdemeanor offenses had passed.

The university issued a statement from its general counsel, Avery McKnight, saying only that “appropriate employment actions” have been taken against the professors.

The allegations were reported to campus police last November, two days after Champion’s death.

There’s a three-year statute of limitations for felony hazing but such cases require proof of great bodily harm. There was no evidence of such injuries in the early 2010 case.

City police blamed a lengthy delay in launching the investigation because they learned of the allegations only through media reports on Jan. 20, two months after campus police had been notified.

A FAMU police report indicated the matter was referred to city police because the alleged hazing happened off campus. Tallahassee police, though, said they had no record of the case being sent to them.

Hazing cases in marching bands have cropped up over the years, particularly at historically black colleges, where a spot in the marching band is coveted and the bands are revered almost as much as the sports teams. In 2008, two first-year French horn players in Southern University’s marching band had to be hospitalized after a beating. A year later, 20 members of Jackson State University’s band were suspended after being accused of hazing.

In 2001, FAMU band member Marcus Parker suffered kidney damage because of a beating with a paddle. Three years earlier, Ivery Luckey, a clarinet player from Ocala, Fla., said he was paddled around 300 times, sending him to the hospital and leaving him physically and emotionally scarred.

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Christian military school sued over student abuse

Parents claim in U.S. district court that a Christian military school allows students known as “the Disciplinarians” to bind, gag, beat and urinate on younger students.

The parents of four students sued St. John’s Military School, of Salina, Kan., and The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, according to a report from the Courthouse News Service.

The parents allege that the school for grades 6-12 has settled nine lawsuits alleging abuse since 2006, which proves a history of abuse by senior students.

“St. John’s hands over to adolescent students the school’s obligation to act as parent to each child enrolled at the institution,” the complaint states. “These Disciplinarians abuse that power and take their authority beyond any reasonable limits while putting the younger boys in constant fear of physical and mental harm.

One student, according to CNS, said he was bound, gagged and beaten by multiple students, who took pictures of the assault and posted them on Facebook. The student said he was locked in a locker for 30 minutes, forced to roll in the mud , then discard his clothes and was urinated on while showering.

Another student said he witnessed multiple suicide attempts by students, and an attempted rape.

A third student said he was forced to perform physical training until he vomited.

All of the student-plaintiffs claim they were victimized by multiple beatings, including one assault that led to a broken orbital socket and permanent loss of vision.

The plaintiffs said the school encourages students to report abuse, but then tells the Disciplinarians which students made the complaint.

The parents are asking the court for damages for negligent supervision, intentional failure to supervise, intentional infliction of emotional distress or outrage, breach of fiduciary duty and conspiracy to assault and batter.

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Student in hazing death was gay

The parents of a Florida A&M student beaten to death in November say their son was gay.

The attorney for the parents of Robert Champion Jr. said homophobia might have been a factor in the student’s death, according to a CBS News report.

Robert and Pam Champion recently visited the Orlando, Fla., hotel parking lot where their son died after a hazing ritual.

“There’s no way around it. It was wrong,” Pam Champion told a CBS News correspondent.

Champion was a 26-year-old drum major in FAMU’s famed marching band. He was found Nov. 19, 2011, on the band bus, unresponsive and suffering severe injuries.

Authorities allege Champion was beaten by his band mates, and his death has been ruled a homicide from hazing.

There have been no charges in the ongoing investigation.

Pam Champion told CBS, “The truth will come out as to what happened. I will find out how my son got there, because I know that he would not have willingly, knowingly just walked into that.”

Champion family attorney Chris Chestnut said he spoke with witnesses, including other band members who said they were hazed, but not beaten as severely as Champion. The attorney said the witnesses told him Champion possibly was singled out because he opposed hazing, was a band disciplinarian and was gay.

“It may or may not have been” his sexual orientation which saw him singled out, Chestnut told CBS.

Responding to the latest developments, the National Black Justice Coalition, the nation’s largest Black LGBT civil rights organization, urged the U.S. Department of Justice’s Community Relations Service and Civil Rights Division to launch an immediate investigation into Champion’s death as a potential anti-gay hate crime.