What should have been a normal Tuesday morning for Julia and Scott Starkey changed drastically with something as mundane as a phone call — a parent’s worst nightmare.
On Dec. 2, 2008, the San Luis Obispo coroner’s office called the parents in Austin, Texas, to inform them that their son, architectural engineering freshman Carson Starkey, had died from respiratory arrest due to alcohol poisoning. His blood alcohol concentration ranged from .39 to .44.
In the aftermath of Starkey’s death, his parents, the campus and both San Luis Obispo and Texas communities moved forward in a positive direction to prevent future alcohol poisoning-related deaths.
“The grief and suffering that we’ll always go through — the void in our lives — there’s no reason anybody else should have to go through that,” Scott said. “That’s our goal. It’s our mission to make sure that nobody else has to spend their lives the way we have to spend ours.”
Scott’s sentiment was reiterated by Starkey’s mother.
“We feel a responsibility to do this,” Julia said. “We have to put our energy somewhere.”
They put that energy into creating a nonprofit organization called “With Carson.” Through this organization, the pair raise awareness of the signs of alcohol poisoning, and educate people on what to do if these symptoms arise.
“One of my main peeves was I didn’t know,” Julia said. “I didn’t know to talk to Carson about the signs of alcohol poisoning before he went to college. And most parents our age that I have talked with don’t know these things. It’s about reprogramming. It’s not just educating students, it’s educating parents to educate their kids. The whole culture out there doesn’t understand it. It’s a big problem.”
When 18-year-old Starkey first came to Cal Poly in 2008, he surprised both Julia and Scott by deciding to pledge Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE). One of the reasons he chose Cal Poly was because he didn’t think he would feel pressured to join a fraternity, Julia said.
“The first thing I said to Scott when I found out Carson decided to rush was, ‘At least he would have people looking out after him because he is out there all by himself,’” Julia said. “But we were very wrong about that.”
The night before Starkey’s death, he participated in SAE’s initiation event called “Brown Bag Night.” At this event, he sat in a circle with 16 other pledges and was told to drink large quantities of alcohol out of a brown bag. The fraternity brothers chanted “puke and rally,” screaming at the pledges to drink and encouraging them to vomit, Julia said.
At some point in the night, Starkey became unresponsive. Some SAE members Googled the signs of alcohol poisoning, put him in a car and started to drive to Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center. But they did not go through with the plan out of fear of getting themselves and their organization in trouble, Scott said.
Starkey was brought back to the scene of the fraternity event where he was placed on a mattress to sleep off his intoxication. He never woke up; Starkey died a quarter of a mile away from the hospital.
“A lot of things went wrong that night, but bottom line was they were too afraid of getting in trouble, and they let Carson die,” Julia said.
This led Cal Poly’s Student Life and Leadership to develop a partnership with Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center to advertise that the emergency room is a safe zone. There is no legal repercussions for going to the hospital.
To help advertise this safe zone, the hospital and Interfraternity Council (IFC) distributed 2,500 educational postcards showing the signs of alcohol poisoning and the appropriate steps to take.
“Our main goal is to encourage those that need treatment to come to the hospital with the comfort of knowing they will get better, not worrying about the cops or parents getting called,” said Ron Yukelson the Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center spokesperson.
Associate director of Student Life and Leadership Stephan Lamb said his main concern is students’ safety.
“We don’t want students to be afraid of getting in trouble,” Lamb said. “First and foremost, we want our students to be safe, and we know that, if students get to the ER, the medical interventions will be highly effective.”
Efforts such as the partnership with Sierra Vista Regional Medical Center are some of the positive results coming from such a tragic loss, Lamb said.
“Prior to Carson, we talked a lot about students that had died due to alcohol poisoning, but they were always students at other schools,” Lamb said. “That’s not the same impact. When it’s one of your own, people listen a different way.”
It wasn’t just Cal Poly that lost one of its own — Texas did as well.
Julia and Scott have since worked with a Texas senator to pass an amnesty law called 911 Life-Line Legislation. The law would grant immunity from prosecution to underage drinkers seeking medical treatment for themselves or for someone they brought to receive help. It is currently waiting to be voted on in the House of Representatives.
“Why would you not want to save a life over writing a ticket?” Scott said. “Kids are worried about getting the MIP (minor in possession), when we want them not to be worried about getting the MIP. We want them to worry about saving their friend’s life.”
Julia and Scott have previously worked with the senator to pass the Carson Starkey Alcohol Awareness and Education Act, all public schools in Texas teach about alcohol poisoning as part of the science curriculum.
In addition to working with legislation, Scott and Julia came to Cal Poly in March and dedicated a bicycle rack on campus in honor of their son. The couple said they decided to dedicate a bicycle rack because it is an accurate representation of him.
“We came up with a bike rack as a memorial because Carson loved cycling and the outdoors,” Scott said. “It was something that would be used every day by lots of students.”
At the bicycle rack dedication, English professor and poet laureate of San Luis Obispo James Cushing read three pieces. He recited A.E. Housman’s “To an Athlete Dying Young,” Thom Gunn’s “Seesaw” and a few lines from William Wordsworth’s “Immortality Ode.”
Being part of the public mourning for Starkey was an emotional experience, Cushing said.
“It was an interesting task; there was going to be me and the parents of a dead boy, and I get to read a poem that will touch them,” Cushing said. “I looked directly into his mother’s eyes. Have you ever looked directly into the eyes of a mother whose 18-year-old son has been killed? You’ll never forget it as long as you live.”
Also attending the dedication ceremony was business administration sophomore and IFC vice president Sean O’Brien, who helped unveil the bicycle rack.
“It’s crazy to think those parents could have been my parents,” O’Brien said. “I was sitting right behind them in the audience, and the mom was crying — it was very intense. It’s scary how it could have been anyone.”
O’Brien said he has seen a change in greek life. There is no hazing, a lot less alcohol involved in fraternity events and everything is stricter, O’Brien said.
He meets weekly in a group setting with the 17 new member educators, the fraternity members that teach the pledges about their specific houses and greek life. At the meetings, O’Brien talks with the different fraternities about what they have planned for the week to make sure nothing illegal takes place.
“A lot of them just don’t know what is legal and what is not,” O’Brien said. “Like going on a scavenger hunt is considered hazing, even if there is no alcohol involved. They have the toughest job because they are managing 15 to 30 new guys. The liability is on them. If their guys get in trouble, they are the ones that are held responsible, so that’s what I have to teach them.”
In addition to these weekly meetings, O’Brien gives a mandatory presentation for all new greek members to attend. The two-hour presentation focuses on Starkey’s story, hazing, alcohol abuse, gender equity and sexual assault.
“The presentation is pushed hard from the beginning,” O’Brien said. “Every single person knows about Carson’s story and knows what can happen from drinking.”
Although the presentations and weekly meetings are helping, there have been some incidents of excessive alcohol consumption.
“There have been mishaps since Carson Starkey — there have been guys that have gone to the hospital, but I think that’s a good thing,” O’Brien said. “It shows that even though they got out of hand and a little too sloppy, they knew the right thing to do. The presentations are helping, especially with the safe zone.”
For Julia and Scott, their efforts do not stop at greek life or the local vicinity of San Luis Obispo. The way alcohol consumption is viewed is not just a fraternity problem but requires a much broader cultural change, Scott said.
“We want to let the awareness and the sense of community that Carson’s death has created to be carried out to the rest of the world,” Scott said. “Let’s let SLO and Carson Starkey and the story be an example to the next town and the next town. Let’s not let it stop in SLO.”