Cal Poly is launching a research project to cut down on campus controversies and tragedies. It comes as the university remembers Carson Starkey, a student who died of alcohol poisoning 10 years ago.
Attending Cal Poly was a dream-come-true for Carson Starkey.
“He was going to be an architecture major,” said his mother, Julia Starkey.
The Texas teen loved the outdoors and his friends. He wanted to rush a fraternity to make more friends at Cal Poly.
Carson’s father, Scott Starkey, said he and Carson had not talked about Greek Life prior to him going to Cal Poly.
“[We were] surprised but we supported it. It was something he wanted to do,” Scott Starkey said.
The Starkeys say they had many open and candid conversations with Carson as he was growing up.
“The one thing we didn’t talk about was alcohol poisoning. We didn’t know about alcohol poisoning,” Julia said.
The 18-year-old was being initiated into the Sigma Alpha Epsilon (SAE) fraternity on Dec. 2, 2008. Pledges were told to drink an excessive amount of alcohol in 90 minutes.
“A brown bag containing the alcoholic beverages was placed in front of each of the 17 pledges,” said Deborah Linden, chief of the San Luis Obispo Police Department in a 2009 press conference.
Chief Linden said in the press conference that investigators discovered 151-proof grain alcohol, Everclear, was also passed between the fraternity pledges.
“At some point, Carson passed out and became unresponsive,” said Chief Linden. “Several SAE members took Carson out of the garage and put him in a vehicle to take him to the hospital, removing Carson’s pledge pin and pledge book in the process in order to prevent Carson from being associated with the SAE fraternity.”
On the way to the hospital, the fraternity brothers decided they did not want to risk getting in trouble, so they took Carson back to the fraternity house.
Carson Starkey never woke up.
“It was a Tuesday morning and this is back when you had caller ID attached to your phone,” said Scott Starkey. “We noticed there was a missed call from the San Luis County Coroner’s office so we called back and that’s how we heard.”
The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity had its charter revoked in 2011 after 20 years on the Cal Poly campus.
Four fraternity brothers were held responsible for the hazing death of Carson Starkey.
Zachary Ellis, Haithen Ibrahim, Russell Taylor and Adam Marszal all pleaded no contest to misdemeanor hazing.
Ellis was sentenced to three months in jail and $5,000 in fines and was expelled from Cal Poly shortly before graduating.
Ibrahim received a sentence of 45 days in jail and $1,000 in fines and was required to participate in Cal Poly’s anti-hazing education efforts.
Taylor and Marszal were sentenced to a month in jail, restitution fines, 40 hours community service and were ordered to give two presentations to Cal Poly students on the dangers of hazing.
All four spent three years on probation.
Scott and Julia Starkey have spent the last decade turning their grief into a catalyst for change.
They started the non-profit Aware Awake Alive. It teaches about the dangers of binge drinking and how to recognize the signs of alcohol poisoning.
“Hundreds of universities are using it, lots of high schools, middles schools,” said Julia.
“Law enforcement groups have used it,” Scott said.
The Aware Awake Alive program is part of new student orientation at Cal Poly.
“It’s [Week of Welcome] leaders talking to their groups; they show a lot of our videos, they use a lot of our talking points but it is definitely peer-to-peer,” said Julia.
One of the SAE brothers convicted in Starkey’s death, Zachary Ellis, shares his side of the story in an Awake Awake Alive video.
Cal Poly Vice President of Student Affairs Dr. Keith Humphrey says Aware Awake Alive’s message is working.
“We see the number of hospitalizations for alcohol poisoning has dropped dramatically,” Dr. Humphrey said. “For example, during our Week of Welcome in 2013, we had 33 students in the hospital for alcohol poisoning. Last year, we had zero.”
Aware Awake Alive also teaches kids about amnesty laws that protect them from getting into legal trouble if they call 911 for a dangerously drunk minor.
Now, Cal Poly and the Starkeys are taking steps to address other college life issues through a new program called With Us.
“Whether that be sexual assault, hazing, alcohol poisoning, racial bias, academic failure,” Julia said.
Cal Poly students are researching bystander intervention program across the country. The studies are being done through the university’s new National Network for Peer Accountability.
“Our effort is really about helping every college campus in the country do the things that are best for them, based on research, to help save lives on their campuses,” said Dr. Humphrey.
The Starkeys and school administrators are calling on students to not just be bystanders in bad situations. Instead, stand up and help those in trouble.
A new “Upstander Week” campaign kicks off this week.
“[Upstander Week] really is an opportunity for folks to show that they know how to step forward and help other people,” said Dr. Humphrey.
The Starkeys continue to mourn but are focused on making a difference.
“It’s a hard time for us,” said Julia, holding back tears.
“It’s always a hard time of year, the holidays. Thanksgiving was the last time we saw Carson,” said Scott. “But it’s not all about Carson. Carson can be the catalyst for this movement but the movement is actually for the future young people.”
Students at public California universities are being surveyed this fall through Cal Poly’s National Network for Peer Accountability to find out how they would react in situations involving alcohol, sexual assault or racism. The results will be out early next year.
Cal Poly student researchers and faculty experts plan to eventually poll college students on those issues nationwide.