ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Tomorrow, Florida A&M University will hold a mandatory town hall meeting. The subject: hazing. The move comes after Robert Champion, a drum major for the school's acclaimed Marching 100 Band, died last year in an episode of hazing. The university suspended the band and is now trying to figure out how to change the school's culture.
With football season underway, NPR's Kathy Lohr recently went to FAMU's first home game to hear what students make of life without their famous band.
KATHY LOHR, BYLINE: The historically black college played its football home opener without the Marching 100 for the first time in decades. Instead of the high-stepping band, Atlanta rapper Future performed from one end zone.
FUTURE: One, two, three...
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Unintelligible)
FUTURE: Let's go, you all. Let's go. Let's go. Let's go.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
LOHR: This year's suspension has left a void at Rattler football games. Just about everyone in Bragg Memorial Stadium was talking about it, like sophomore Kadeem Bin-Salamon who's from Tallahassee.
KADEEM BIN-SALAMON: It's not going to be FAMU, I guess, without the band. That's FAMU. When you think of FAMU, you think of Marching 100. I was shocked. I didn't expect them to suspend them for a whole year.
LOHR: Many students at the game say they didn't think much about hazing before Robert Champion's death. Movia Miller is in her 60s. She graduated from FAMU and has been going to the games for more than 40 years.
MOVIA MILLER: Yeah. We miss the band, of course. And we miss Robert too. But, yeah, it shouldn't have gone that far.
LOHR: Miller doesn't think hazing is widespread. Both of her children were in the band and didn't complain of hazing. She says the incident is taking a toll on the school and the community.
MILLER: I mean, we're punishing the whole town. We're punishing the new students. We're punishing the old ones. We're punishing everybody, though, you know? We're punishing everybody.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: We've got a ball game for you.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: (Unintelligible) one, two, three, let's go.
LOHR: The stands were mostly full on this steamy night. University officials say enrollment is down by 1,000 students this fall, in part because of fallout from the hazing death. At halftime last weekend, interim president, Larry Robinson, called for a moment of silence.
LARRY ROBINSON: I want us to take a moment and pause in honor of those fallen Rattlers for 2011 and 2012 and victims of hazing and bullying everywhere.
LOHR: Robert Champion was beaten on a bus after a football game last November. He was beaten so brutally that he bled to death. The band director was fired, and the university's president resigned. At a recent meeting with students and faculty, the interim president emphasized hazing incidents are serious.
ROBINSON: If, in fact, they do occur, I just want everyone to know our actions will be swift, and they would be decisive.
LOHR: Just a few weeks ago, the school suspended a dance team over an alleged hazing incident. The university launched a new anti-hazing website. And beginning next year, all students will have to sign an anti-hazing pledge.
But officials are fighting a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Champion's parents. Last week, in response to the suit, the school said Champion was a willing participant in the hazing and liable for his own death.
CHRIS CHESTNUT: You can't be too hopeful about significant change and eradication of a culture if you've got 30 pages denying any culpability in the culture.
LOHR: Chris Chestnut is the family's attorney. He says Robert's parents know the band was a big moneymaker and a huge draw, but the university has to take action.
CHESTNUT: So many lives are affected when this band does not perform. But we can't have them performing at the cost of any one person's life either.
LOHR: Many at this weekend's football game said they realize it's tough to stop the practice. But the university wants students to pay attention to its efforts, so much so that classes have been cancelled for tomorrow's town hall meeting. Quentin Hester is a junior from Miami who says he'll probably go, which, after all, is mandatory.
QUENTIN HESTER: Now, they're shutting down every class. So I guess they're really, like, putting forth the effort to make sure that there's no more hazing.
LOHR: Florida A&M is not the only school dealing with the issue. North Carolina Central just suspended its drum line, and a liberal arts college in western New York cancelled its women's volleyball season, both because of alleged hazing incidents. Kathy Lohr, NPR News, Tallahassee. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.