A frat hazing at Cal Poly killed their son. Even in grief, the Starkeys find joy in helping others

Scott and Julia Starkey reflect on the changes that have taken place in the 10 years since their son Carson died in a Cal Poly fraternity hazing incident.
Scott and Julia Starkey reflect on the changes that have taken place in the 10 years since their son Carson died in a Cal Poly fraternity hazing incident.

In some ways, 10 years is a long time. In others, it’s gone in an instant.

We were married in the fall of 1984. A decade later, we were busy raising two boys: Hayden, age 6, and Carson, age 4. Another 10 years later, these two happy and healthy young men were nearly ready to leave the nest and equipped to conquer the world.

Then, on December 2, 2008, everything changed. Less than two decades after Carson came into our lives, he died following a Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity hazing initiation ritual where he was compelled to drink large quantities of Everclear and other hard alcohol — unresponsive, unmonitored and abandoned on a mattress. He was only 18.

In 20 minutes, the son we’d raised from an infant to a fine young adult was gone, for reasons we’d grapple with, come to peace with, and that ultimately would drive our mission. It was a tragic and needless sacrifice — a wound that will never truly heal for our family. But, without question, it has also opened our minds and hearts in ways that would change everything we knew and, unexpectedly, in ways that would illuminate what Carson’s life was about.

The part that makes his death so senseless – a prevailing theme of alcohol poisoning stories across campuses every single year – was that his fraternity ‘brothers’ loaded him into a car to get help, but then turned back because they feared consequences. They ultimately decided to just let him sleep it off on that mattress.

Carson never woke up. But we did.

As we privately coped with losing our child, we were continually touched by how loved ones and strangers came out not only to comfort us, but to help make something good of Carson’s death.

In fact, when we came out to San Luis Obispo to bring Carson back home to Texas, we assumed we’d never return, but we realized on that trip that his death had meaning after all. Between Cal Poly officials, friends and the community, we found that there was a missing piece in preventing alcohol poisoning deaths that began to reveal itself.

The reason Carson did not wake up is because those young men — each of them goodhearted, from loving homes, and possessing competent educational backgrounds — did not have the fundamental knowledge or confidence to know how to do two exceedingly simple things: stay and call for help.

It is a tragic tale we read about time and again, most recently with the loss of Tim Piazza, Max Gruver, Andrew Coffey and Matthew Ellis — among many others who senselessly lost their lives as well.

We share their families’ pain — and resolve.

What we have all learned over time is that while it takes education early and often, it takes structure and enforcement, and it takes amnesty and hazing laws, as well as policies that remove the fear to intervene. But the critical ingredient is cultivating our inherent core value to help.

Help one another!

This is what Carson was all about in his 18 years. This is what the students tell us again and again and again. Learning to help one another is the sensible pathway for saving the most lives. This is not our discovery of course; this is just what the collective wisdom of our community made evident.

It’s hard to express what’s transpired in the past decade since we lost Carson. We hesitate to say that it happened for a reason, but maybe the inverse is true: that his death created reason – reason to examine the circumstances and similarities, reason to connect with others, and reason to be a part of connecting the dots.

Our grief for Carson is ongoing, but what has become bigger than that is the optimism and commitment of hundreds and hundreds of people who continue to step up to help.

Our loss and time have granted us a deep sensitivity to the joy of helping others. Whatever “your cause” or tradition may be, we challenge you to devote yourself to those who the cause serves. Take yourself out of the equation. The result will be you finding more happiness and satisfaction than you ever could by doing something self-serving. Always give more than you receive.

These intentions and Carson’s legacy initially became the nonprofit With Carson, then Aware Awake Alive. Last year, our family gifted the Aware Awake Alive nonprofit to Cal Poly and it became the catalyst for WITH US: The National Network for Peer Accountability at California Polytechnic University. We’re laying the foundation for fundamental change at a national level for how we equip young people to deal with the sexual assault, hazing, alcohol poisoning and hate bias they encounter.

Now our collective challenge is to remind our young people that they belong to each other and that they can leave no one behind. It is up to every one of you to pass this message along.

It has been said that “those we hold closest to our hearts never truly leave us. They live on in the kindness they have shared and the love they brought into our lives.” Carson lived life with urgency and we suggest you do as well. You never know what tomorrow may bring. So, bring it today!

Julia and Scott Starkey live in San Luis Obispo. They invite readers to visit for our 10 lessons learned and how to help.