Ohio State fires band director Jonathan Waters over ‘sexualized’ culture

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Adam Cairns | Dispatch
Ohio State Marching Band director Jon Waters leads the band in "Carmen Ohio" following a game in 2013.
By The Columbus Dispatch  • 
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Ohio State University has fired the director of its marching band and is expanding an internal investigation that uncovered a deep culture of sexual harassment among students that reportedly has existed for years.

The two-month investigation, triggered by the complaint of a parent, revealed a cascade of evidence that students routinely harassed one another –– often directed at new band members by older students –– and that director Jonathan Waters knew about it or should have known.

Waters, 38, was ousted from his post effective today, OSU President Michael V. Drake said. Details of the investigation are laid out in a 23-page report obtained by The Dispatch.

Drake said he was disappointed by the findings and the firing, but that all of the university’s senior leaders agreed to the dismissal after reading the report.

“We care about what is happening when we are looking, but we also care about what is happening when we are not looking, and our leaders have a responsibility to set that standard and to enforce it,” Drake said in a Dispatch interview this morning.

“We’re looking for a future where that band can continue to thrive and do wonderful things, but some of the aspects of how the band was guided are not acceptable in the modern world,” he added.

Examples of abuse include an annual midnight band practice at Ohio Stadium in which men and women were expected to march wearing only their underwear. In one recent year, a student suffered alcohol poisoning at the practice. Students led the rehearsal, but staff members, including Waters, were there, too.

Some other traditions: All new band members, or “rookies,” were given nicknames, many of which were sexually explicit. Rookies were forced to perform “tricks” on command. In one case, a female student was told to imitate a sexual act on the laps of other band members, including her brother.

Several witnesses said that students performed a “flying 69” on tour buses, in which band members hung from the luggage racks and posed in a sexual position. Waters was on the bus when that happened as recently as last fall, according to a band staff member who quit last year.

The staff member told investigators she resigned from the band because Waters would not address alcohol abuse on that trip.

An “unofficial” songbook was part of the evidence that investigators provided to university leaders, with raunchy lyrics set to school songs at other colleges.

The report is a heavy blow to a marching band that, since Waters took over in 2012, has seen a swift rise to national fame. Waters was seen as a pioneer for giving all students iPads to chart dazzling halftime shows that routinely drew millions of viewers to online videos. Waters has been the face of the band, appearing on national talk shows as an expert on marching bands.

Last year, the band –– known as the “pride of the Buckeyes” and the “best damn band in the land” –– appeared in a dramatic TV ad for the iPad.

But behind that glamour, some witnesses said, there was a “culture of intimidation” that kept secret the long traditions that bothered some students. Some had complained and said they were ignored.

The investigation included interviews with several band members, staff members under Waters and the director of the school of music at Ohio State.

The University Office of Compliance and Integrity, created following a scandal that featured Jim Tressel and Terrelle Pryor, led the investigation, which started on May 23. Title IX, a federal law that bans discrimination and harassment, sets requirements for investigating this type of complaint, including a 60-day deadline for resolution.

Many if not all of the traditions predate Waters, but OSU leaders concluded that he didn’t do enough to stop them. The report said little about Jon Woods, the previous director who led the band for 25 years before handing the reins to Waters, who has been with the band in some role since 1995.

Waters knew about the nicknames and called at least one student by her sexual nickname. One female student said Waters ignored her complaints that she was uncomfortable changing in front of men on buses when the band traveled.

Some students said that Waters often yelled or cursed at students, and one said that Waters texted dirty limericks to students. Waters denied both accusations.

Waters told the office investigating him that he had taken steps to curb some of the traditions. He asked band members to cancel the midnight underwear practice. He reprimanded a student for using an offensive nickname in 2011, as assistant director. He banned a newsletter penned by students after it berated a female student in the band, and he disciplined the author.

At the conclusion of the internal investigation, the university named former Ohio Attorney General Betty Montgomery to lead a second inquiry aiming to find anything that the first one might have missed.

She will be assisted by Ernst & Young’s investigation unit, which will review OSU policies, and lawyers who will make sure OSU complies with Title IX.

Waters, 38, served the marching and athletic bands for 10 years as assistant director under emeritus director Woods, and as interim director following Woods’ retirement.

Waters graduated from Ohio State in 2000 with a bachelor’s degree in music education, and he was a member of the marching band from 1995 to 1999. He earned two master’s degrees at Ohio State in music education and conducting, according to his university biography.

Ohio State plans to name an interim director soon, Drake said, before beginning a search for a permanent director. That search could include candidates in the band or outside, Drake said.

Among other recommendations, the report calls a review of university oversight of the band, new training for band members and staff members, and continued surveys of band members to gauge whether things are changing.

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