A decade ago, Scott and Julia Starkey received the worst news of their life.
They learned that their 18-year-old son, Carson, had died of acute alcohol poisoning after a fraternity hazing in his first year at Cal Poly.
The Starkeys flew to San Luis Obispo from Austin, Texas, to try to make sense of a nightmarish set of circumstances: bad decisions, peer pressure and extraordinary amounts of alcohol.
Since Carson Starkey’s death on Dec. 2, 2008, after a Sigma Alpha Epsilon party, the Starkeys have experienced a roller coaster ride of emotions, inescapable pain and an outpouring of support as they made it their mission to prevent similar tragedies from occurring on college campuses.
The tragedy led them to move to San Luis Obispo, where they’ve formed a national awareness group and continue to advocate for change in collaboration with Cal Poly, which is launching a new campaign this week.
“We could have flown here (after Carson’s death) and then flown back to Texas and never returned,” Julia Starkey said. “But the community here has become like our family. ...”
“Even if our work just influenced the Cal Poly campus, that would have been OK with us,” she said. “But we realized it could have a national impact, and we’re so grateful to see how it’s taken off.”
Carson’s death and aftermath
On the night he died at a secret Sigma Alpha Epsilon hazing ritual, Carson was among the pledges who were ordered by fraternity leaders to drink large quantities of beer and hard alcohol.
Carson was given rum, beer, a Sparks alcohol beverage and Everclear (which contains 75 percent alcohol), according to a 2010 Tribune story.
He consumed the drinks in a matter of minutes, following direction from fraternity leaders — some of whom encouraged pledges to vomit and keep drinking. According to a 2010 story, tests after Carson’s death determined that he had a blood-alcohol level of between 0.39 and 0.44 — five times the legal limit for driving.
Later, some Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity members began to take Carson to the hospital because he was struggling to remain conscious and appeared severely ill. But they then returned him to the party house, where he went back to sleep.
Carson never woke up again.
In the first months of their son’s death, the Starkeys split their time between San Luis Obispo and Austin, attending emotionally draining criminal court hearings against the fraternity members, and consulting with lawyers in civil cases against the fraternity and some members. Hazing is a crime in California and can be prosecuted.
The Starkeys reached a lawsuit settlement with Sigma Alpha Epsilon — the terms of which were not disclosed — and four leaders in the fraternity reached plea deals in their criminal cases, resulting in jail sentences ranging from 30 to 120 days, as well as conditions such as probation time and cooperation in Cal Poly’s anti-hazing education efforts.
One of the fraternity members, Haithem Ibrahim, settled a lawsuit with Scott and Julia Starkey with the agreement to pay $500,000, according to a 2010 report.
Public service in the wake of tragedy
Having uprooted their lives in Austin, the Starkeys have found a new home in San Luis Obispo and established a nonprofit, Aware Awake Alive, that aims to create awareness about alcohol poisoning and encourages bystanders to step in.
Each of the 23 California State University campuses now uses the Aware Awake Alive peer-to-peer program, which provides resources and training to help students identify and act upon the symptoms of alcohol poisoning, according to the Aware Awake Alive website.
The Starkeys have also advocated for medical amnesty laws that grant immunity to minors who seek medical help in emergency situations involving drug and alcohol violations. They’re sometimes called Good Samaritan laws.
The Starkeys said the laws, which have been passed in most U.S. states including California, help save lives. Without them, the couple said, young people may fear legal consequences and hesitate to get help in a life-threatening situation.
The Starkeys have also helped launch a new Cal Poly-based organization, With Us — The National Network for Peer Accountability. Started in February, With Us aims to prevent sexual assault, hate, bias, alcohol poisoning and drug abuse, along with a host of other issues affecting college students.
The idea behind With Us is that students step in and help someone in need versus stand by and do nothing.
On Monday, With Us announced the launch of its inaugural Upstander Week campaign, which encourages college students to share knowledge and encourage action during dangerous, life-altering events.
The campaign includes social media challenges and fundraising efforts for bystander intervention programs and awareness campaigns.
“We’ve been affected personally by alcohol poisoning,” Scott Starkey said. “But through our work, we’ve learned about so many other issues that affect people — and often it’s when alcohol is involved. We want to encourage people not to be a bystander, but an upstander, and inspire people to do the right thing.”
Peer-to-peer approach and awareness
With Us is in the process of researching and conducting a national survey on the best ways to educate, inform and provide resources for college campuses nationwide on bystander interventions.
“It’s not uncommon to see or hear about situations where someone didn’t speak up or step in to prevent the loss of life or serious harm,” said Keith Humphrey, Cal Poly’s vice president for student affairs, said in a statement.
Humphrey told The Tribune that it’s important for the intervention programs to have a peer-to-peer approach because if it’s “developed by administrators and handed down to students, they’ll smell it a mile away” and it likely won’t be as effective.
Humphrey added that the Starkeys’ Aware Awake Alive program and other messaging to Cal Poly students during the university’s Week of Welcome have helped reduce hospitalizations due to alcohol consumption.
Humphrey told The Tribune that 33 students were sent to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center in San Luis Obispo for treatment during the Week of Welcome in 2013. No students were hospitalized during WOW Week in 2018, he said.
Transitioning to a new life in SLO
The Starkeys decided to permanently move to San Luis Obispo after finding solace, support and an opportunity to make a difference in the community and at Cal Poly.
“We’re grateful for all the community support we’ve received and to be able to help college students and others make the right decisions,” Julia Starkey said.
The Starkeys also wanted to live closer to their son, Hayden, who spent years serving in the U.S. Navy. He now works at Apple in Silicon Valley, and is married with a young child.
The Starkeys say they don’t hold resentments toward the fraternity members who were by Carson’s side on the last night of his life.
“I knew they didn’t know what they were doing,” Scott Starkey said. “I knew they were afraid because of the alcohol involved. More than anything, I was just frustrated at the situation.”
Scott Starkey said that the pain has never gone away, but they’ve been able to cope with it better.
“There’s always going to be a hole inside of us,” Scott Starkey said. “And there are triggers that make us remember what happened. But in some ways you don’t want that hole to go away. Because if that hole wasn’t there, you’d stop thinking about Carson, and I don’t ever want to do that.”
Correction: This story has been corrected to reflect the role of With Us in bystander intervention awareness and programming and the hospitalizations that took place during the Week of Welcome.