Pam Champion, the mother of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion
Pam Champion, the mother of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion
Eleven people face criminal charges in the southeastern U.S. state of Florida in connection with the death of a university marching band leader - allegedly assaulted by other band members after a football game last year. Two others are charged with misdemeanors. The case centers on what's known as "hazing," an initiation ritual that often involves physical and psychological abuse.

The Florida A&M University marching band is among the best in the country. Its highly regarded reputation, however, is now badly tarnished amid allegations of a widespread hazing scandal.

"No one could have expected that his college experience would include being pummeled to death," said Florida State Attorney Lawson Lamar. He said that at least 13 students brutally beat drum major Robert Champion in a hazing ritual on a bus last year. Investigators believe Champion was forced to walk through a gauntlet of fists.

"I have come to believe that hazing is a term for bullying. It's bullying with a tradition, a tradition that we cannot bare in America," said Lamar.

Sociologists say hazing has long been a problem in marching bands - particularly at Florida A&M and other historically black colleges in the south. Psychologist Susan Limpkins says hazing takes on many forms.

"They do paddling, they do branding, they do eating broken glass," she said.

Analysts say hundreds of thousands of students are hazed every year, and sometime it goes too far.

"It is accepted. It's now becoming a part of a tradition and the question is, 'do you maintain this tradition, knowing that psychologically they may be harming individuals that aren't going to come forward?'" said Social Worker Julie Berg-Einhorn.

Hazing is seen in many different types of social groups, including sports teams, military units, and among college fraternities and sororities. The practice is often prohibited by law and can comprise either physical or psychological abuse.

"Hazing is the idea of belonging to a sub-group, either professionally or socially and sometimes ethnically, people that have the same values as you do," said University of Florida Sociology Professor Frederick Shenkman.

The often secretive and sometimes violent practice is a growing problem on high school and college campuses. But Robert Champion's death stunned the nation and exposed hazing traditions among marching bands at some colleges. Longtime Florida A&M band director Julian White, who was fired, said he tried to stop the hazing.

"I talked with students daily and said don't haze, don't haze," said White.

But some students say it was tolerated.

"Everybody on campus is pretty much aware of it. I mean, you don't say much about it, because it's a secret. It's within that organization," said one student.

Popular university marching bands can generate millions of dollars for a school. And band members, especially at black colleges, often are treated like celebrities. Robert Champion's mother says hazing rituals have been a part of the marching band's culture for decades.

"Everyone that was involved, the administrators they knew this culture existed in the school," said Pam Champion,

Florida A&M officials have suspended the band and they say the university is working vigorously to eradicate hazing.