It’s been half a decade since Julia and Scott Starkey sent their son Carson to Cal Poly as an architectural engineering freshman to begin what were supposed to be some of the best years of his life.
Instead, it was the last year of his life.
After being hazed at a Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity event, Carson died on Dec. 2, 2008 from alcohol poisoning with a blood alcohol concentration of 0.40.
Five years later, his legacy lives on at Cal Poly through Aware Awake Alive, a non-profit organization Julia and Scott started to make sure what happened to their son doesn’t happen again.
Though hazing was one of the main causes of Carson’s death, the Starkeys felt alcohol poisoning was the “last straw.”
“Two factors that stood out were the young people that surrounded him did not recognize the severity of his situation, meaning they didn’t understand what alcohol poisoning looked like, and secondly they were afraid to act because they didn’t want to get in trouble,” Scott explained. “Those were the two tips of the spear, so to speak, that we decided to go after with Aware Awake Alive.”
Cal Poly has been a supporter and partner of Aware Awake Alive since it started in 2011, Julia said. After the Starkeys put together the resources for Aware Awake Alive’s programming, Cal Poly “took that and ran with it,” she said.
“In the fall of 2011 orientation took ahold of it, housing took ahold of it, greeks, even the ROTC program, and it just bred through the campus,” Julia said. “That’s really what Aware Awake Alive is today.”
Though Cal Poly President Jeffrey Armstrong, an Aware Awake Alive board member, said the program’s effect on Cal Poly has been “tremendous,” alcohol-related incidents are still occurring years after Carson’s death.
The disaffiliation of Sigma Phi Epsilon in 2011, suspension of Alpha Phi in 2011 and suspension of Delta Sigma Phi in 2012 all show that problems related to alcohol and hazing haven’t disappeared within the greek system.
“To be candid, the greek life is the area of campus that has been the slowest to adapt to Aware Awake Alive,” Scott said. “They’ve done a lot. They’ve come a long way, but to answer your question, I think that a lot more could happen.”
According to Diego Silva, former coordinator of sorority and fraternity life, Carson’s death resulted in a “180-degree switch in direction” for the hazing atmosphere on campus. Though Aware Awake Alive partners “extensively” with Cal Poly’s greek community, hazing isn’t something that has gone away, he said.
“I wouldn’t say that it’s completely absent on this university, I think that we carry a lot of the same ongoing issues that a lot of our other partner universities do,” Silva said. “I don’t think that the hazing culture is anything near to what it was in 2008, let’s say.”
Carson’s death resulted in some direct changes to greek life, such as the disaffiliation of Sigma Alpha Epsilon from campus and the adoption of deferred recruitment for Interfraternity Council (IFC) fraternities in 2010.
According to Silva, deferred recruitment made some fraternity members feel like they were paying the price for Carson’s death, even though most weren’t on campus when the incident took place, Silva said.
“For the longest time, a lot of our students felt that they were being punished for something that students years before them did, and they never got a fair chance to prove that they have changed and become different and really elevated the expectations of greek organizations,” Silva said.
Fall recruitment for fraternities was reinstated this year, along with a “tiered compromise” between the greek community and administrators, said IFC President and business administration junior Domenic Hjerpe. The compromise includes a series of policy changes to greek life, such as registering social events and alcohol management, he said.
“I think it will definitely improve the greek community because it will help keep everything under wraps and definitely a lot safer,” Hjerpe said.
Vice President for Student Affairs Keith Humphrey was instrumental in bringing back fall recruitment. He said he thinks the change will benefit students’ connection and engagement with Cal Poly.
“We know that students who are engaged are more likely to be retained and graduate quicker than those who are not connected,” Humphrey said.
However, Julia and Scott opposed the idea of reinstating fall recruitment. They were “involved” during the process of making the policy change, but not comfortable endorsing it, Armstrong said.
“We still feel strongly that deferred rush is another life-saving factor, and we still support deferred rush,” Julia said.
Though they disagree with administrators on the issue of deferred rush, the Starkeys are “thrilled” with some of the other policy changes made as parts of the compromise, Julia said.
These changes will hopefully foster student success and eliminate the negative aspects of greek life, such as hazing, Armstrong said.
“That’s what we’re trying to do with regards to some of our policy changes, is to be very careful as we move forward to reduce and eliminate the chances where people will binge drink, where they’ll be underage drinking, and where problems can occur,” Armstrong said.
The issue of alcohol poisoning isn’t just a problem for the person drinking, it’s a “Cal Poly family issue,” Armstrong said. The Mustang Way and Aware Awake Alive both emphasize picking up fellow students when they fall, he said.
“It really is about watching out for one another,” Armstrong said. “Someone makes a mistake, let’s get them to the hospital. Let’s not let them suffer from that mistake.”
Since Carson’s death, students have been more responsive to this message.
In 2008, University Police Department (UPD) received 23 alcohol- or drug-related medical aid calls, and this year they have received 65 calls for aid, according to Fred Mills, UPD records manager.
Though he has only been on campus since February, Humphrey believes Aware Awake Alive and Carson’s story have made students more likely to call for help in an alcohol-related emergency.
“We are seeing students more comfortable getting medical help when their friends have consumed too much alcohol,” Humphrey said.
But there are still improvements to be made. A college student dies every 44 hours from alcohol poisoning, just as Carson did in 2008, Julia said.
“I think that Carson’s story is really important, because Carson could be any one of the 20,000 students on campus,” Julia said. “It happened to him, but I think his story is not unusual.”
By sharing Carson’s experience through Aware Awake Alive, Julia and Scott hope to not only save lives, but honor the life of their son.
“Cal Poly’s overwhelming endorsement helping us build the program is a great tribute and honor to Carson,” Scott said.
Memorials around campus help honor his legacy as well, such as the bike rack dedicated to him in 2011 and the tree recently planted by the football stadium this fall, Julia said.
“Just recently, this past October, we planted a tree in his honor and hope to see it grow big and strong,” Julia said.
The ceremony for the tree was small but meaningful, and it included people from the San Luis Obispo, Cal Poly and Aware Awake Alive communities, Armstrong said.
“That tree’s going to be there for years and years and years to remind people of Carson,” Armstrong said.
Though most of this generation of students were not on campus when Carson died, they all know his story. It’s important his story continues to be told, so another “senseless death” won’t occur again, Armstrong said.
“I think it’s going to be impacting freshmen and transfer students, students in general, students in greek life, for years to come,” Armstrong said.