Now is the time when thousands of parents will participate in the bittersweet ritual of dropping a son or daughter off at college, no doubt experiencing a unique mixture of sadness and pride.
Typically, Mom and Dad choke back tears while their offspring — itchy for independence — can’t wait to wave goodbye.
Such a moment may not be the best time for last-minute sermons. But after this year’s newly minted freshman have unpacked, we urge parents to initiate one more frank talk about a dangerous and deadly phenomenon on college campuses: Hazing and alcohol poisoning.
Two years ago in early September, we dropped off our youngest son, Carson, at Cal Poly, which he chose for its architectural engineering program. A top student at Stephen F. Austin High School in Austin, Texas, Carson was eager for this next adventure in his life.
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Though San Luis Obispo is 1,600 miles from Austin, we were confident that Carson — an avid outdoorsman and athlete — would thrive in his new environment. A few weeks after moving into his dorm, he informed us he had decided to join a fraternity.
Mid-morning on Dec. 2, 2008, our lives were shattered. Our home phone rang, but the caller hung up before we could answer. Recognizing the area code for San Luis Obispo, we hit the “redial” button. A voice answered: “Coroner’s office.”
There’s no good way to find out that your beloved son has died. But compounding our grief was the news that Carson’s life was taken by a senseless “initiation” ritual carried out by young men who Carson thought were his friends.
The night of his death, Carson and 16 other pledges of the SAE fraternity were taken to the garage of a private home and given large quantities of hard alcohol to consume within an hour and a half. Fraternity members chanted “puke and rally” and a “vomit bucket” was placed in the middle of the room.
Carson collapsed 20 minutes later. Several fraternity brothers stripped him of all SAE identification and loaded him into a car to take him to a nearby emergency room. They instead aborted the trip and put him back in the house on a mattress. The next morning, when Carson was unresponsive, he was rushed to a hospital. He was pronounced dead.
We believe that the students chose not to seek medical help because they were scared and afraid of getting into trouble.
For this reason, the Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission adopted a policy granting amnesty for individuals who seek medical help for minors who might be in danger of alcohol poisoning.
The Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission approved the Carson Starkey Alcohol Amnesty Policy on the first anniversary of Carson’s death, and we hope the Texas Legislature will adopt this policy as statewide law. We believe California also needs similar statewide policies and legislation to help save young, promising lives.
We, with Carson’s older brother, Hayden, have started a nonprofit organization and website, withcarson.org, to educate young people to recognize the outward physical signs of alcohol poisoning and help them make the correct choice in an emergency.
Recently, we printed wallet-sized cards for students to carry, listing the signs of alcohol poisoning (coma, seizures, slow breathing and bluish skin, among others) and distributed them at Austin high schools, along with copies of the new Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission policy. Similar cards have also been provided to Cal Poly for all incoming freshmen to receive during WOW.
We urge parents to take a firm stand with their sons and daughters against hazing. Some experts believe as many as 75 percent of American college students endure some form of hazing.
Tell your students that these activities are not harmless “pranks.” Tell them that, at best, hazing is mean-spirited and, at worst, it is Russian roulette that can end beautiful lives. Hazing is a crime in Texas and California. This summer, four students pleaded guilty to hazing misdemeanors in a California court for contributing to Carson’s death. We wish all college students could hear our words to the four young men in court:
“Pressuring someone through psychological, emotional or physical means is wrong. ... Someday, you may be fathers, and I pray you never have to suffer the loss of a child. I hope you will eventually understand how unnecessary this tragedy was. Participating in and encouraging wrong behavior while telling yourself “that’s how it has always been done” or “I had to do that” is a farce. Failure to recognize right from wrong and not standing up for what is right makes you nothing more than a common follower. ... I challenge you to join the movement to expose hazing and help change the culture in which it thrives. I challenge you to step forward and be leaders.”
We wish we had known to have this conversation with our son. We hope our story will move you to have it with yours.
Julia and Scott Starkey are residents of Austin, Texas.