Judge to decide release of FAMU student records

By Stephen Hudak, Orlando Sentinel
5:23 p.m. EST, June 1, 2012

A circuit judge in Orlando will review student records obtained by detectives investigating the hazing death of Florida A&M University drum major Robert Champion and decide if they should be released to the public.

Lawyers for several defendants sought to bar the release, arguing the documents were confidential “academic records” under federal and state law and that their disclosure would violate the students’ privacy rights.

It’s unclear what the documents contain, although high-school transcripts and college-application letters almost certainly are among them. But the documents also potentially could contain student disciplinary histories.

William Vose, chief assistant to State Attorney Lawson Lamar, and James McGuire, a lawyer representing the Orlando Sentinel, urged the judge to sift through the documents and decide which fall outside legal exemptions.

Eleven members of FAMU’s Marching 100 are charged with felony hazing in the death of Champion, 26, who was pummeled to death Nov. 19 on a band bus parked at the Rosen Plaza hotel after the Florida Classic football game in Orlando. At least three of those charged in Champion’s death were not eligible to perform.

Investigators say Champion was the voluntary victim of an acceptance ritual known as “crossing over” which required him to make his way from the front of the bus to the back while absorbing blows from members of the band’s percussion section.

Using subpoena powers in December, homicide investigators obtained school records of 30 students, including potential witnesses and all of those charged in Champion’s death. Some records may be protected by a federal law known as the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act.

Circuit Judge Marc Lubet, assigned to preside over the criminal hazing cases, said the university should have notified the students before turning the documents over to investigators and given each student an opportunity to object.

He said FAMU could potentially lose federal funding if they surrendered records in violation of law.

Orlando attorney Michael Dicembre, who represents accused Marching 100 band member Benjamin McNamee, said none of the students received notice of the university’s intention to share confidential academic records with law enforcement.

In defense of FAMU, which did not have an attorney at Friday’s hearing, Vose said university officials were “in a tizzy because this was a horrible, horrific event…I think when we gave them the subpoena, they weren’t going to try and quibble with us.” Vose said he believes the university was trying to assist in the investigation of Champion’s death.

Lubet said he would review the documents and decide if they should be wholly withheld from the public or if some should be disclosed with identifying information redacted.

The judge, who has taught a trial-advocacy class at the University of Central Florida for about seven years, also informed lawyers that he might teach a class at FAMU’s law school, which is located in Orlando.

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