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Perspective: A Haven for All

Mike Lawson • Commentary • August 14, 2014

Once again, a high-profile marching band is in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

Last fall, millions of people across the country were transfixed by The Ohio State University’s Marching Band. The Best Damn Band in the Land, as they call themselves, had a fantastic season, assembling outstanding show after outstanding show. YouTube videos of the group’s performances received tens of millions of hits, and the university band earned countless kudos and accolades for their creative, precise, and wildly entertaining halftime routines. On the heels of this eye-catching season, it came as quite a surprise to many when incoming president of the university, Dr. Michael Drake, announced on July 24 that he was firing Jonathan Waters, director of The Ohio State University Marching Band.

At issue was the band’s alleged “oversexualized, toxic culture.” An internal review found that Waters, who became head band director in 2012, was reportedly aware of this culture and did not do enough to change it. Dr. Drake concluded that the there was “an environment within the band conducive to sexual harassment, creating a hostile environment for students.”  In a statement released to the university on YouTube, Drake continues, “Nothing is more important than the safety of our students. We must abide by a zero tolerance policy – both with the marching band and the entire campus community – for any behavior that creates a hostile culture at Ohio State.”

Ousted OSU director of bands, Jon Waters.Waters, who is himself a former OSU band member and was an assistant director at the school for a decade, has acknowledged that the band’s culture needed some work, saying he took measures to make changes. However, he argued that cleaning up the alleged behavior isn’t something that could be done overnight. “This is an entrenched culture that dates back to the 1930s… it doesn’t turn on a dime,” he said in an appearance on NBC’s Today Show. “We have taken steps to eliminate [certain] activities in the band… on my first day I engaged with my leadership team to try to shape the culture and eliminate poor behaviors.”

Waters also agreed with the underlying concerns expressed by the OSU president: “Let me be very clear, harassment of any type is not tolerated and should not be tolerated and we have taken steps to eliminate it.”

There are many pertinent details to this story that may never reach the public, which makes it hard to know whether or not the actions by Dr. Drake were the best course of action. There has been a substantial outcry from within the band in defense of their ousted director. Some say that Waters was being scapegoated or that the review that led to his firing was biased or otherwise unfair.

I don’t pretend to know enough to pass judgment on this particular situation. However, this is another great opportunity to stress that band, like all activities related to institutions of education, must be a safe haven for students, a sanctuary where young people can learn together, work together, grow, and thrive together. And they must be able to do so freely, in a welcoming environment that does not put them at risk for any form of harassment.

Whether a group aspires to a final product that moves with military precision, like last year’s on-field edition of The Ohio State University Marching Band, or doesn’t take themselves quite as seriously, as is the case with the student-led Stanford University Marching Band, featured in this issue, there’s no excuse for allowing mutual respect, integrity, and the wellbeing of the student musicians to be of anything less than paramount importance.

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