Steps toward justice for victims are being taken, starting with suspension of band alumni
Several accounts of hazing, assault and a generally “toxic” culture within UC Davis’ California Aggie Marching Band (Band-uh!) have recently surfaced. Current and ex-members of the band have come forward to The California Aggie, asking that their stories be told, in hopes that the student body will become aware of an allegedly darker side of the organization.
These reported incidents are thought to date back decades, reflecting miscalculated efforts by leaders within the band to keep “tradition” alive. Others feel that these perpetual injustices must be stopped and that the student body has a right to know what exactly is happening inside their marching band.
In 2008, a complaint was filed against Band-uh! by the then-director Tom Slabaugh based on sexualized comments, inappropriate behavior and an overall hostile work environment. Slabaugh, who spoke to The Aggie in an interview, declined to address the 2008 situation because he felt it had been resolved. However, the complaints that have arisen since then indicate otherwise.
Joel Gutierrez, a third-year American studies and gender, sexuality and women’s studies double major, immediately summed the band’s culture up with two specific terms: hypersexual and cult-like.
Gutierrez, more than willing to open up about their experience, painted a picture of the band’s social structures that provide a base for the so-called toxic environment. Most members join as freshmen, they explained, which effectively “traps” them into staying in band.
“People come in right away, and they’re like, ‘These are my friends,’ and then they don’t make any other friends,” Gutierrez said. “No one ever realizes, ‘Wow, this place is awful, these people are kind of gross, this environment is toxic’ because if you leave, you won’t have any friends.”
Anyone who is new to the band, they continued, is considered inferior and in need of proper initiation.
The initiation process can last for the majority of the school year, taking shape in a variety of odd activities. For example, in 2017, all veteran band members continually referred to an upcoming “marching test” for new members throughout the year, emphasizing its importance.
New members were asked to dress in full uniform, complete with their new hats, and report to the arboretum. Earlier in the year, senior members specifically instructed the new members to keep their hats in perfect condition no matter what.
Instead of marching, the hats were taken from new members, rubbed in the dirt and dunked in Putah Creek. They were asked to wear them the remainder of the day.
Gutierrez said that although this incident may sound insignificant, it actually marked a pivotal moment when they realized the band may not be as wholesome as it seemed. They recall feeling humiliated and deceived by the people who were supposedly their close friends.
Additionally, there are two types of parties that take place within the band’s social sphere: bondings and “mavericks.” Bondings are smaller, more intimate gatherings that take place within specific sections of the band. Gutierrez was a part of the clarinet section, and they noted that their bondings were less intense than those of other sections.
“I don’t want to say it was necessarily intended to humiliate you, but sometimes it really did feel like that,” Gutierrez said in regards to the various activities that took place during the bondings.
They described the pressure put on new members to attend these gatherings and how new members’ uneasiness was quickly dismissed as insignificant. The bondings, they said, were incredibly sexual in nature, reflecting the band’s general culture.
At one specific bonding, new male members were blindfolded and taken to an outdoor area, dimly lit by candles. They were handed hand-carved penis candles and were instructed to describe what the candles felt like. They were all subsequently asked to describe their own genitals as well.
On the other hand there are mavericks — also known as “mavs,” that are thrown several times throughout the year. These band-wide parties include drinking games, jugs of mysterious mixed drinks and lewd songs accompanied with inappropriate gestures.
These songs further promote a rape culture within the band, Gutierrez noted.
“If you look deeply into it, some of these are really, really bad,” Gutierrez explained. “Talking about rape in really not a way that you should be talking about rape, making light of it, especially in mind with the fact that sexual assault is constantly happening in the band, it’s pretty revealing. I think honestly the sexual environment of the band probably encourages sexual assault, too, because everyone’s like, ‘Well, we’re all horny and having sex all the time, so yeah she wants to have sex with me!’ and then sexual assaults happen. I think [the songs] really reveal that.”
Lastly, Gutierrez commented on the presence of band alumni, saying that they felt as if alumni were always somewhere — whether it be at rehearsals or parties. They attribute this to the cult-esque sense of community surrounding the organization. Gutierrez described the majority of them to be “creepy” men, recalling hearing about alumni harassing women at parties and groping them.
They left the interview off with one last remark.
“The fact is, it’s been two years and there are still rapists in the band.”
A former member of the band who wished to remain anonymous quietly expressed their desire for the story to break, feeling that there isn’t enough being done both within the band and at the university-level to correct the issue.
“I want to explain how toxic the culture is, because I don’t think the public is aware,” they said. “Traditions and mentality have been held up since the seventies and haven’t progressed since the seventies when it comes to hazing and verbal abuse.”
They reported that these ‘traditions’ — manifested in odd rituals, verbal abuse and a strict hierarchy — haven’t come close to being abolished. This is largely due to the prominent alumni presence that keeps old traditions alive and band officials’ desire to hold power over their members.
The source went on to explain their personal experience dealing with Band-uh! and the reported power dynamics that exist within the organization. Though they were initially timid to share, as the interview progressed they opened up and became more upset and expressive about the described abuses.
They spoke of exclusive, band-only parties that took place after football games, where band members were expected to consume alcohol or else they “weren’t cool.” Members in charge don’t allow any cell phones to be out, they explained, at risk of any pictures or videos being taken.
At these gatherings, they said, freshmen were especially targeted. The hazers, or “coats,” would stand on elevated surfaces and force first years to sing inappropriate songs about beastiality and rape, among other controversial topics.
“Coats,” according to multiple sources, hold unofficial positions within the student band. The group consists of members who have been entrusted to keep the traditions of Band-uh! alive — both the good and the bad. These responsibilities are passed down as coats graduate, with only the most dedicated band members selected for the position.
Bullying and sexual abuse were two themes that were constantly referred to throughout the interview. The source also noted the difficulties members go through when removing themselves from band.
“People who leave band and cut cold-turkey […] don’t develop as a normal human being in college,” they said. “You become comfortable and you don’t know how to engage or make a new friend group […] it becomes like a really comfortable, comfortable place and everyone’s your friend. Then I left, and suddenly nobody wanted to be my friend.”
Audible frustration was apparent when they told The Aggie about their efforts to bring justice to the band.
“Stanford, Cal Poly and Humboldt,” they said. “They’re all marching bands that got suspended for a year because it [the hazing] got out of hand. But their stories […] aren’t even close to what happens here, yet SJA and Campus Rec don’t do sh*t about it. And they’re aware of it. The university is really scared about doing something because they know it’s going to be a big story.”
Jeff Heiser, the associate director of Campus Recreation, directly addressed this claim with one of his own.
“Campus Recreation takes all allegations of potential misconduct and hazing seriously,” Heiser said via email. “Reports of possible violation of our CAMB Code of Conduct were reported in the fall. In consultation with our department leadership and in conjunction with our Code of Conduct, we immediately took action to remedy the situation, including temporarily suspending students from participating in band activities and re-writing some policies to clarify expectations.”
The second source continued by addressing the reported problem of Band-uh! alumni frequenting band practices, performances and parties. The source claimed that their presence not only encourages unhealthy traditions, but also becomes problematic in the context of sexual assault.
“You know when the Band-uh! plays at basketball games?,” they said. “Alumni still go to that, too. That’s a problem because people who are sexually assaulted by alumni have no jurisdiction because they can’t tell the university, because they [the university] have no jurisdiction over the person.”
Heiser also commented on the potentially harmful presence of band alumni.
“Due to concerns brought to our attention regarding the alumni band, and in consultation with Campus Counsel and HDAPP [the Harassment and Discrimination and Prevention Program], we are currently suspending the alumni band from participating with our student band until we have some additional requirements and expectations in writing,” Heiser said via email. “We are looking forward to the alumni band performing with us at Picnic Day.”
On Mar. 28, 2019, an email was sent out to the Cal Aggie Marching Band Alumni Association (CAMBAA) listserv. The message, obtained by The Aggie, referenced CAMBAA’s suspension from campus activities due to a potential violation of state and Federal laws. To protect confidentiality, the email did not disclose any additional details — however, it specifically mentioned that sexual harassment training will be codified in the CAMBAA Constitution.
It is unclear whether or not the situation to be detailed below is related to the newly announced suspension. The second source believes there to be additional incidents that triggered the suspension of CAMBAA — among those, they specifically recalled a male alumnus choking a female band member.
A third source, who also wished to remain anonymous, spoke with The Aggie about a particularly troublesome event they had with a band alumnus. This source wrote out a statement detailing a first-hand experience they had at a 2018 band party.
“Mellos [Mellophones] have a no dating rule and are pretty platonically affectionate as a group, so I thought it would be cool to get on the couch with him [the alumnus] in a strictly cuddly sense,” the third source said in a statement. “I didn’t mind continued kissing there, but then he suddenly slid his hand up my shirt […] Eventually, I quit caring about what was happening in total, because I was exhausted and basically falling asleep in the middle of this, so I lay down on the couch. He followed me and resumed sexual activity without warning nor my opinion, for or against. I felt like I couldn’t say no because of how long it had already gone on and he had responded badly to me asking for adjustments, so why would he respect me telling him to totally quit? Therefore, out of fear of how he’d react and just sheer exhaustion, I played possum, which did not discourage him.”
This third source later agreed to participate in a phone interview, where they gave further insight into the culture that allowed such an alarming incident to occur.
“I want to say something to the less obvious parts of band culture that are problematic,” they said, faltering in between sentences. “People at our age enjoy, sort of, dirty humor. And so both that and the fact that, in my section, platonic cuddling and trying to be physically affectionate is something promoted a lot […] I was more willing to view things — sexual jokes and innuendos or wanting to be physically affectionate — as something that wasn’t inherently leading to a sexual relationship or anything like that. I feel lied to by the culture of my section, in a way, and I feel like that’s something interesting — that they would say, you know, ‘This is something that y’all just do and it doesn’t mean anything,’ and then boom, it does.”
Because their aggressor was not a current student, they were unable to seek justice through the university and opted not to bring their accusation to the police. Some sort of justice was served when the band’s party committee effectively banned the alumnus from coming back to social events.
They went deeper into explaining the long-standing party habits within the band, sharing their understanding that few members take the idea of sober consent seriously. The source expressed their frustration that this law wasn’t emphasized in the mandatory risk management training, which takes place at the band retreat over the summer.
“People don’t take risk management seriously at all,” the third source said. “I remember, as I was walking into it this past year, I heard someone say, ‘Ugh, we have to do the rape talk,’ and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me? This would be helpful if you took it seriously.’”
On the other hand, this same risk management program was claimed to be extremely thorough and helpful by Heiser and the band director Josh Garcia.
Both Heiser and Garcia were terse during an in-person interview.
“We have a session that has two different parts — one on hazing, and then also sexual harassment and risk management,” Heiser said. “We also […] push this concept that being a member of the California Aggie Marching Band doesn’t take any additional steps. You pay to become a member, you participate in retreat and that’s it. There are no other special hoops to jump through.”
Heiser and Garcia both emphasized that these trainings were frequent, extensive and required. Additional training is required for members who hold positions in the band.
The two university figures also implied, however, that they could only be held responsible for the band’s actions during designated band time.
“Honestly, I’m very removed from their social scene,” Garcia said. “Things that happen off of band time […] I’m not there, so.”
The two anonymous sources both referred to issues with the band’s reporting system. They recalled times when problems within the band were not dealt with accordingly when the band director became aware of them.
Certain situations, they explained, should have been reported to SJA or Campus Recreation that weren’t. Heiser and Garcia both refuted this claim, saying that any issues that demanded to be elevated were elevated to campus partner offices.
Additionally, Garcia stressed that there is a level of discretion used when dealing with problematic situations.
“First and foremost, I would assume that students would bring it to each other, then to the officer council — because they’re kind of the governing body — and then bring it to me,” Garcia said. “At that point, Jeff and I would discuss it and decide whether it’s something we can handle under our plans or policies, or if it’s something we need to elevate at that point.”
Heiser interjected as soon as Garcia stopped talking, eager to list off campus organizations the band partners with. The Office of Student Support and Judicial Affairs (OSSJA), the Harassment & Discrimination Assistance Prevention Program (HDAPP) and Campus Counsel were all named.
The third anonymous source ended their interview with an expression of hope for the band’s future, noting that the environment may be improving.
“I have a little bit more faith in the system, knowing that it worked as much as it did for me, even if it didn’t work perfectly,” they said. “As time goes on, band gets better and better as people stand up and report and speak out.”
Written by: CLAIRE DODD — email@example.com