The Howard University Showtime band director was placed on administrative leave last fall following allegations of physical abuse, sexual harassment, negligence and inappropriate language toward students in the band, according to the university.
Kelvin Washington, who was appointed as the director in 2019 after working in the music department for 28 years, was placed on paid leave after the Dean’s Office in the College of Fine Arts received a letter on Sept. 19, 2022, signed by members of the marching band detailing their concerns about Washington, according to the Office of University Communications.
The letter, reviewed by The Hilltop, was signed by more than 70 members of the band.
Multiple students alleged instances where Washington put a student in a chokehold, repeatedly called students “dumb” and used racial slurs and obscene language with female students. Washington also allegedly commented on students’ weight and physical appearances while they were wearing their uniforms and told a student she “wasn’t one of the pretty ones.”
“Howard University takes accusations of misconduct, abuse and inappropriate behavior extremely seriously,” Misha Cornelius, the director of public relations, said. The university said they were unaware of Washington’s alleged behavior prior to receiving the complaints from students, and encouraged all students to report concerns of abuse and inappropriate behavior to the Title IX Office.
The university also shared that band members would not face retaliation for “speaking openly about the matter and any type of abusive behavior would not be tolerated.”
The Hilltop reached out to Washington via a phone call, however, he declined to comment on the allegations.
Gena Willis, a junior honors political science major and second-year band member, said band members have had concerns about Washington’s alleged inappropriate behavior for years.
“He had issues with inappropriate touching. Not just sexual harassment, just general level of what’s professional and what’s appropriate between a student and a teacher. I would definitely say more so in the past few years, rather than this year,” Willis said.
“There’s been those instances where he’ll say an insult to the whole drumline or he’ll pick someone out,” Asaad Martin, a third-year member of the drumline and junior computer science major, said. “For the drumline, when we would make parts that would be ‘too busy’ or not what he liked, he would call us the ‘dumb-line’ instead of the drumline.”
Martin shared that while his previous band directors in high school would get frustrated, they refrained from hurling insults at students.
On Dec. 16, the university received a second letter from the band members which outlined their apprehension about Washington returning. The letter, signed by band members, said if Washington returned members would feel the progress the band has made under associate band director Michael Fitzhugh’s leadership would be jeopardized.
According to the letter, Wind Symphony classes occur on a consistent basis while the band’s retention and overall morale have improved— something that hadn’t occurred under Washington’s leadership.
“During the time that Mr. Washington was here, he never held class for the Wind Symphony, continuously harassed students in a verbal and physical manner, would either not come to rehearsal at all or come late, consistently overextended rehearsal times, threatened to revoke scholarships…” the letter read. “His behavior and actions warrant more than some time off. We hope that you will not take his actions lightly as his behavior has been repeated for many years.”
Members of the Dean’s office, including dean Phylicia Rashad, assistant dean Denise Saunders Thompson and faculty from both human resources and the Fine Arts Department, held a meeting with members of the band on Jan. 10 to express their grievances and concerns.
Kristen McDaniel, a sophomore biology major and second-year band member, said band members received an email from the dean the following day alerting them that “[Washington] wouldn’t be involved in the upcoming season.”
For students like McDaniel, the university’s resolution provides some solace.
“It took two hours and thirty minutes for [the band’s requests] to be somewhat answered,” McDaniel said.
In response to Washington’s employment, “The University cannot comment on the specific details of personnel decisions; however, we can confirm that Mr. Washington remains employed with the University…We remain committed to hearing our students, and as such, have taken swift and appropriate action to address the grievances brought forward by some members of the band,” Cornelius said.
The university did not provide a time frame for when the investigation would be over.
Though Washington remains an employee, the university has not officially named a new band director. As the investigation proceeds, the band continues to rehearse for the remainder of their season.
Band students can often be found rehearsing in the basement of the College of Fine Arts under the direction of Fitzhugh, who has assumed the responsibilities of band director in Washington’s absence.
For Fitzhugh, a two-time Howard alumnus, the added responsibilities haven’t been easy, but he shared that the wellness of the students is of the utmost importance.
“We also understand that first and foremost, they’re here to be students. They come here to begin their careers and get their education so that they can go out into the world and be positive and productive members of society,” Fitzhugh said.
“Our goal is to make sure we don’t stand in the way of that growth and development and do everything we can to empower them to make the decisions that will be best for them in the long run,” he added.
Fitzhugh shared that leadership transitions in the band do not occur very often. Prior to Wahington’s appointment as the director of bands, the preceding director, John E. Newson, Sr., served in the role for more than 25 years until his retirement.
“This was the first time many of the students and alumni witnessed what that transition looked like, and what it looks like when it goes from one vision to the next person’s vision,” Fitzhugh said.
Now under new leadership, several band members said trips are “much more well organized” and “morale has significantly increased.”
“It’s really nice seeing that the band gets a place where they are nurtured and cared for, their opinions are valued, and they’re treated with respect,” Mickenzie Wiggins, a first-year member of the Flashy Flags, said.
Copy edited by Alana Matthew