Fraternity bans pledging five years after Cal Poly student's hazing death

Cal Poly student Carson Starkey died of acute alcohol poisoning on Dec. 2, 2008, after a fraternity-related hazing.
Cal Poly student Carson Starkey died of acute alcohol poisoning on Dec. 2, 2008, after a fraternity-related hazing.

Two Greek organizations at Cal Poly already have alternatives in place to the initiation process called “pledging” that the fraternity Sigma Alpha Epsilon dropped from its chapters nationwide this week.

But the majority of Greek organization chapters at the university still use the traditional pledging process, which can take weeks or months to complete before a new member is accepted.

The pledging or “rush” process consists of a formal recruitment period, typically with several meetings, events and activities. The process is meant for members and candidates to get to know each other and share information on the organization before a bid is offered to a prospective member through a selection process.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon was the fraternity that Cal Poly freshman Carson Starkey sought to join as a pledge in 2008 before his alcohol-related hazing death.

After Starkey’s death, the university suspended Sigma Alpha Epsilon from campus until 2033 and said it’s likely that it will never become active again on campus.

This week, Sigma Alpha Epsilon called the change implemented for its chapters nationwide a “historic decision” to eliminate a months-long period featuring secret rituals.

Sigma Alpha Epsilon now recruits new members and limits initiation to a 96-hour window once a bid is accepted.

While most Greek organizations currently operating at Cal Poly don’t appear ready to follow suit, one fraternity on campus already uses a recruitment method similar to the one SAE has adopted.

Zeta Beta Tau, founded in 1898 as a Jewish fraternity, adopted a no-pledging policy in 1989, and its members recruit other students to join; a new member must be initiated within 72 hours of accepting a bid.

The fraternity, which prides itself on inclusivity, recruits “men of good character, regardless of religion, race or creed” who are accepting of its principles of “intellectual awareness, social responsibility, integrity and brotherly love,” according to its website.

Jason Colombini, Cal Poly’s student body president and a member of Zeta Beta Tau, said in an email Monday that he is finishing his second term as a new member educator.

He noted on his fraternity’s website that he joined the fraternity partly because of its approach with new members.

“I was impressed by the strong anti-hazing views and brothers of Cal Poly’s Zeta Beta Tau fraternity,” Colombini wrote. “Joining ZBT has easily been one of the best decisions I have ever made in my entire life.”

The pledge process has been blamed by some for creating opportunities for abuses, including hazing, and dangerous behaviors such as binge consumption of alcohol.

At least 10 deaths since 2006 have been linked to hazing, alcohol or drugs at Sigma Alpha Epsilon events, more than any other fraternity, according to data compiled by Bloomberg News.

After acceptance, new Sigma Alpha Epsilon members now go through a leadership education program with components on alcohol and hazing implemented by Starkey’s parents, Scott and Julia Starkey.

Danielle Durante, Cal Poly’s Panhellenic Council president representing sororities, said in an email Monday that she isn’t aware of any sororities planning on banning the pledge process.

But she noted that another fraternity on campus, Lambda Chi Alpha, also uses an alternative to the pledge process.

Cal Poly representatives from Lambda Chi Alpha couldn’t be reached Monday. But according to the fraternity’s national website, it uses an “associate member” program that gives them full rights to vote and hold office after joining the organization as they learn about the fraternity through a fraternity mentor. Anti-hazing policies are strictly enforced.

Leaders of two prominent Cal Poly fraternities contacted Monday say they’re not considering changing their pledge process and haven’t heard of others on campus doing the same.

Nick Salvucci, a past president and member of Pi Kappa Alpha, said that his fraternity employs an eight-week pledge process that helps build bonds between new recruits and members before they join. The process also helps students to decide if the fraternity is the right fit, Salvucci said.

“We stick with the traditional eight-week process held by national headquarters,” Salvucci said. “I think it’s a good one and going strong. We’ll go with the regimen that our national headquarters provides.”

Jon Grishpul, the rush chairman with Alpha Epsilon Pi, added that the “topic of re-evaluating the pledge process has not been brought up at our fraternity.”

Cal Poly’s vice president for student affairs, Keith Humphrey, said that he hopes more fraternities and sororities follow SAE’s path.

“I support the move by Sigma Alpha Epsilon to take steps that promote both brotherhood and safety,” Humphrey said.

Humphrey said the university wouldn’t unilaterally impose an across-the-board ban on the pledging process at Cal Poly, but it’s a conversation he’d be happy to facilitate with students if they wanted to discuss it.

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