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Parents of Florida A&M hazing victim to sue bus company

NBC's Mark Potter reports.

The parents of a Florida A&M drum major killed in a hazing incident said they will sue the company that owns the bus where the hazing took place, The Orlando Sentinel reported on Tuesday.

Robert and Pam Champion said they plan to file the lawsuit against Fabulous Coach Lines to force witnesses to testify under oath about what happened to their son, Robert Champion Jr., 26, on board the chartered bus last November, according to their lawyer, Christopher Chestnut.

The lawyer told The Associated Press that the bus company’s negligence contributed to Champion's death. The lawyer and parents have said band members were able to get back on the bus to conduct hazing rituals after they had returned to an Orlando hotel following a football game against the school's archrival.

John Raoux / AP

Pam Champion and her husband, Robert Champion Sr., speak out about the death of their son Robert Jr., in Orlando, Fla.

Ray Land, the owner of Fabulous Coach Lines, said his staff did everything to get help once they were notified of a problem. Land told the AP in December that the bus driver was helping students unload their instruments when Champion collapsed.

"The bus company has some liability," Chestnut told the AP. "They knew or should have known that hazing was occurring on the bus."

'Not a hate crime'
Champion was killed in what the medical examiner has ruled a homicide in the course of hazing by the celebrated Florida A&M University "Marching 100" band. The beating took place while the bus was parked at an Orlando hotel after a band performance at a football game. No one has been charged yet in the death.

During a press conference in Orlando on Tuesday, the Champions confirmed their son was gay, but rejected rumors that his sexual orientation had made him a hazing target.

"Our investigation is very clear: This was hazing, not a hate crime," Chestnut said told The Orlando Sentinel.

The Attorney for the family of Robert Champion, who died after he was beaten on a bus, says that their unofficial preliminary investigation shows that the Florida A&M University drum major was killed after a hazing ritual. Watch the entire news conference.

Witnesses have told Champion's parents that their son may have been targeted for severe hazing because of his opposition to the marching band's culture of hazing, the AP said. Other witnesses have told them that other reasons might be that Champion was gay and that he was a candidate for chief drum major. His parents believe it was the first time he was hazed.

"The main reason that we heard is because he was against hazing, and he was totally against it," Robert Champion said.

The father said he knew nothing about the 50-year culture of hazing at the FAMU band when he sent his son off to school. Champion said that he regularly spoke by phone to his son, and that he always ended the calls by asking whether his son had anything he needed to tell his Dad.

"He never mentioned anything to me about hazing," Robert Champion said.

Hank Nuwer, an author of several books on hazing in schools and the military, said that hazing has reached the point where there has been a death in a fraternity, athletic team or band in a college every year from 1970 to 2011, “and sometimes more than that.”

Hazing on a bus among college students was rare, though a “huge” number of such incidents have occurred at the high school level, Nuwer said.

He said bus drivers needed to be alert and there should be adult supervision in the back of the bus: “If you have a culture of problems, you’re foolish not to have it,” he told msnbc.com on Tuesday. 

'A true leader'
Pam Champion said her son was defined not by his sexuality but by his leadership skills. 

"Robert was known for being a stickler [for rules]," she told the Sentinel. "If I thought about it, Robert was known for being what a true leader should be."

"Perhaps one of the motives might have been retaliatory," she said.

In the course of a private investigation, the family's lawyer said his office has spoken to more than 10 band members.

Chestnut said he determined that at the time of the incident, the bus was running but the interior lights were turned off.

"We don't know exactly who did what to Robert," Chestnut said, adding that detectives have not spoken to him or the family.

Pam Champion said the goal is to stop hazing to prevent further deaths and injuries, and she cautioned parents to be vigilant.

"The whole thing is, talk to your kids," she said. "Think twice when your kids are going off the college."

The family has previously said they plan to sue the university, but they must wait six months before filing under state law. 

This article contains reporting from The Associated Press, Reuters and msnbc.com's Miranda Leitsinger and ´╗┐Sevil Omer.

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