Education

UC Davis shuts down student-run marching band. Investigation found binge drinking, harassment

‘P is for passive resistance. Just lie there and take it.’ UC Davis student on band culture

Former UC Davis marching band member Christina Peña describes the culture of the band in April 2019. As a member of the California Aggie band, Peña received the “Hymnal” – a booklet of explicit songs that glorify sexual harassment and drinking.
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Former UC Davis marching band member Christina Peña describes the culture of the band in April 2019. As a member of the California Aggie band, Peña received the “Hymnal” – a booklet of explicit songs that glorify sexual harassment and drinking.

The freshmen were blindfolded and and driven nearly an hour, told they were going to a “bonding” event hosted by older students in the UC Davis marching band.

They were told they were going to be “‘painting cows” with “animal-friendly paint.” When the freshmen arrived, they were given a cup of “paint” and told to take their blindfolds off.

“We discovered it was actually a red Solo cup full of a mysterious alcoholic beverage,” one of the students would later tell investigators hired by the campus. “We were then met with a loud band and introduced to the party called ‘Barn’. I would have had a much more fun time if they had simply told me the truth and if I wasn’t led under false pretenses.”

The student’s hazing story, detailed in an investigative report, was one of several troubling accounts that prompted UC Davis to permanently disband one of its most beloved student-run institutions, the Cal Aggie Marching Band-uh! The decision was announced to the campus Tuesday.

The university will instead create a “university-supervised” band with a new name, uniforms, governing structure, bylaws and guidelines, Interim Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs Emily Galindo said in a statement to campus. The university also cut ties with the alumni band, saying it will no longer be recognized and will be barred from participating in campus events.

“The group referred to as the ‘Band-uh’ will no longer exist,” she said.

The new band will begin a two-year probationary period and be limited to performing in university athletic games and campus ceremonial events.

The announcement comes three months after a Sacramento Bee investigation into allegations of hazing, binge drinking and sexual misconduct in the band. The independent review, announced less than a week after The Bee published its findings, found several “areas of concern,” ranging from sexual harassment to widespread accounts of hazing.

The review, conducted by law firm Van Dermyden Maddux, anonymously surveyed hundreds of current and former band members and found “corroborated concerns” about “alumni interactions, negative traditions, pressure to participate in formal and informal (band) activities in order to be accepted, and negative treatment of first-year students,” the report said.

Still, participants surveyed said they felt overwhelmingly positive about the band, with 85 percent of respondents stating they were either “satisfied” or “very satisfied” about their overall experience.

“With that said, however, the survey and interviews revealed areas of concern regarding traditions, activities and behavior, with survey and interview respondents citing examples of misconduct,” Galindo said in the statement to campus.

Investigator Deborah Maddux said in her report that the same students who reported having a positive experience, told stories that suggested “a culture and climate that has normalized concerning behaviors.”

“Indeed, many of those who noted that they were ‘Satisfied’ or ‘Very Satisfied’ provided narrative response or answers to specific questions which raised serious concerns,” Maddux wrote.

Among those concerns, nearly 42 percent of the survey’s respondents said they were troubled by the behavior of alumni who were traditionally allowed to participate in parties and other events.

“Alumni are creepy and go to parties still,” one student wrote. “They are too old to still be around people in their early 20s. It makes me uncomfortable. They put pressure on us to drink a lot and tell us how ‘traditions are supposed to be.’”

Last year, the university suspended the Cal Aggie Marching Band Alumni Association, due to allegations of misconduct against a member.

Some students told investigators they’d experienced sexual harassment and assault. Some said their concerns were dismissed by band leaders and the university.

“While a member, I was told by certain members that I shouldn’t publicly say bad things about the band because it would risk getting the band investigated,” one of the survey respondents wrote. “I was not subject to sexual violence in the band, but I know many people were and still are. Known rapists are still allowed to be members of the band.”

The investigation confirms the findings in The Bee’s May report.

Past and current band members told The Bee consistent stories of a culture of hazing, binge drinking and people taking off their clothes. One student described the band as a “frat with instruments.” Three people told The Bee they had sexual experiences so traumatizing they sought professional therapy, and one woman said she had to be hospitalized for a psychotic breakdown.

Other band members described alcohol-fueled “Maverick” parties and a “hyper-sexualized” culture in which people are encouraged to “make out” with as many as possible. They described a tradition called “Shirts-Off O’clock,” in which partygoers take off their shirts at a set time.

They said at least one section in the band hosts naked hot tub sessions at an annual band retreat called “Cabin” held in the Tahoe area. The Bee obtained video taken last year at a band practice on campus, featuring several students performing in their underwear.

Eighty-seven respondents to the survey shared concerns about witnessing “vulgar” songs performed from the “Hymnal,” an 68 page songbook that’s been handed down through the band since the 1980s. The songbook features songs and crude drawings about sex, bestiality, incest, rape, masturbation and oral copulation.

Tuesday’s announcement comes amid a nationwide #MeToo movement that has sparked a reevaluation among college administrators over how they handle sexual abuse accusations, hazing and binge drinking.

On many campuses, behavior that was once dismissed as “kids being kids” is leading to punishment and sanctions for students, fraternities and other groups.

“I’m just happy that the university actually took every criticism from the victims and they took it seriously enough to actually do something,” said Christina Pena, a former trumpet player in the band. “It literally is the best outcome that any of us as victims could have hoped for.”

Law firm's report on UC Davis band

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Molly Sullivan covers crime, breaking news and police accountability for The Bee. She grew up in Northern California and is an alumna of Chico State.
Ryan Sabalow covers environment, general news and enterprise and investigative stories for McClatchy’s Western newspapers. Before joining The Bee in 2015, he was a reporter at The Auburn Journal, The Redding Record Searchlight and The Indianapolis Star.
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