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Published: Friday, 12/16/2011

Fla. governor defends call for suspension of FAMU president in aftermath of band death

ASSOCIATED PRESS

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Florida Gov. Rick Scott said Friday he was doing the right thing by asking for the suspension of Florida A&M University’s president until an investigation is completed on hazing that could have led to a band member’s death.

“I care about what happens to FAMU,” Scott insisted. “It’s important to our state. It’s important to the country.”

Scott said Friday it was important to let people know he believes this was the best way to handle it and he wanted the public to feel comfortable that the investigation was carried out in a transparent fashion. He said he remains hopeful that Ammons had no involvement.

“My job is to make the right decision for the state of Florida,” he added. “I believe this is the right decision.”

Scott has called on FAMU President James Ammons to step aside amid multiple investigations into the death of a marching band member. Scott said he did not know if Ammons had done anything wrong, but he contended it would be in the best interest of the university for the president to go.

His request for the university’s Board of Trustees to suspend Ammons prompted a couple hundred students to protest late Thursday night at the Governor’s Mansion. Scott eventually came outside and talked to them, but he did not back off from his recommendation that Ammons be suspended. The governor and Ammons were scheduled to meet later Friday.

WCTV in Tallahassee showed video of students telling the governor that he should rescind his recommendation and not get involved with FAMU’s operations until the investigations were over.

The television station showed the governor, who was wearing a gray sweatsuit, using a bullhorn to tell the students that he made the recommendation so that no one can question the outcome of the investigations.

Scott asked state law enforcement to assist in the investigation of the death of drum major Robert Champion. Champion died following a football game in an incident that police say involved hazing. Florida officials said this week that probe led to them discovering “financial irregularities” with the band’s finances.

The governor returned to Florida on Thursday following a seven-day trip to Israel. He called the chairman of the FAMU board on Thursday and asked him to suspend Ammons effective immediately.

When asked by reporters if Ammons could hang onto his job, Scott said, “If he’s not done anything wrong, sure, absolutely he should survive this.”

FAMU’s president does not report directly to the governor. But the governor is responsible for selecting some of those who serve on the FAMU board of trustees. The governor also appoints most of the people who sit on the board of governors that oversees the State University System.

State Sen. Arthenia Joyner, D-Tampa, on Friday called for Gov. Scott to withhold judgment and rescind his recommendation to suspend Ammons.

“The governor’s knee-jerk reaction inflicts wide-ranging damage but brings us no closer to the truth as to what happened in Mr. Champion’s tragic death,” Joyner wrote in a statement. “He needs to allow his agency to complete the investigation he requested before rendering his version of justice.”

Solomon Badger, the chairman of the FAMU board, said the trustees would meet by phone on Monday to consider the governor’s request.

Some of the student protesters have started an online petition calling on Badger and other board members to ignore Scott’s recommendation and to keep FAMU “in our hands.”

“Florida A and M University has been a beacon of light for its community and students,” states the petition. “The rich heritage and culture of the university should not be over shadowed by the poor choices and unethical actions of a few.”

Ammons put out his own statement on Thursday evening defending his actions so far.

“I’m sure that this investigation will determine that under my leadership, the administration acted appropriately.” Ammons said. “I serve at the pleasure of the FAMU Board of Trustees and I will abide by whatever decision the board reaches.”

The board last week discussed suspending Ammons but instead voted to publicly reprimand him.

Ammons took over as president back in 2007 and was brought in to help clean the university’s troubled finances and its loss of accreditation.

In the wake of Champion’s death, he suspended the Marching 100 band and tried to fire band director Julian White and expel four students connected to the incident. But White responded by contending that he had warned university officials about chronic problems with hazing.

The expulsions and White’s firing were rescinded at the urging of Florida authorities who said they did not want any disciplinary action taken while the criminal investigation was still pending.

But the State University System began its own internal investigation into whether FAMU officials ignored past warnings about hazing.

This week, police also arrested three band members accused of beating a female member so severely during hazing rituals that they broke her thigh. Tallahassee police said that in hazing ceremonies Oct. 31 and Nov. 1, the three struck Bria Shante Hunter’s legs with their fists and with a metal ruler to initiate her into the “Red Dawg Order,” a band clique for students from Georgia.



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