Family of hazing victim settles USU lawsuit
The family of a Utah State University freshman who died of alcohol poisoning in a 2008 hazing incident has agreed to dismiss their lawsuit against the Logan school after USU officials signaled they will "fine-tune" measures related to alcohol awareness and hazing.
"We're on the path to accomplishing our goals," said George Starks Sr., the student's father. "We will monitor the progress that has or has not been made by Utah State."
The lawsuit alleged USU failed to exercise meaningful oversight over its Greek-letter societies, long ignoring misbehavior at the Sigma Nu fraternity chapter where George's son Michael was a pledge. The 18-year-old Salt Lake City student consumed a lethal dose of vodka at a party staged in his honor during initiation week in November 2008.
The settlement, which is not yet filed in 1st District Court, involved no payments to the Starks.
"This suit was never about compensation," said Charles Thronson, the family's lawyer. "This was about getting some rules and procedures implemented at Utah State that would go to a greater extent to protect incoming freshman from the hazards of hazing and binge drinking."
The settlement envisions the university adopting recommendations made by a task force convened by USU President Stan Albrecht in the wake of Starks' death.
"We are eager to implement any action that we can to help ensure our students are fully aware of the dangers of alcohol abuse and the important role that student peers play in each other's safety," said a statement from James Morales, USU vice president of student services.
Since the tragedy, the Starks family has worked to expose the dangers of hazing a poorly understood problem implicated in the deaths of 20 students since 2000, according to expert Hank Nuwer, author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing.
"We will continue on different fronts," said Starks. "Hazing is something ongoing. Parents need to know that in loco parentis is gone. This idea, when you send little Bobby off to school that he will be looked after, is gone."
The incident that killed Starks began with sorority women "capturing" him and another Sigma Nu pledge. They took them to a fraternity member's home, where they bound the young men with duct tape, painted their skin Aggie blue and hoisted bottles of vodka to their lips. Starks drank most of a fifth and was very drunk when he was brought back to the frat house.
Chapter leadership put him to bed and even called poison control for advice, but Starks was found not breathing around 3 a.m. and was later pronounced dead. Logan prosecutors charged 12 members of the Chi Omega sorority and Sigma Nu fraternity with hazing, and USU shut down those chapters. The hazing charges failed to stick, although some students were convicted of alcohol offenses. The family reached confidential settlements with the two Greek organizations.
The Starks tragedy led to two changes in state law, strengthening penalties for hazing when drugs and alcohol are involved and allowing for lenience for underage drinkers who call authorities when a companion has overimbibed. The Starks family had unsuccessfully lobbied for "amnesty"Â for callers.
This legislative session the family hopes to push a measure that would bar freshmen from rushing fraternities until at least spring semester.
The Starks suit raised questions about the extent to which universities should regulate student organizations. The family argued USU should have done more to rein in Sigma Nu's bad behavior and warn potential pledges about the dangers of Greek life. They alleged USU tolerated "a culture of drug and alcohol abuse" at the fraternity, which police reports show had been the scene of arson, thefts, vandalism, false fire alarms and assaults.
Six months after Michael died, the president's panel released its report, which USU embraced without admitting culpability.Â
"We like the tone this settlement strikes. The focus is where it can do the most good," said USU spokesman John DeVilbiss. "These are things we have been doing all along. We found areas that we could fine-tune."
The key recommendations:
• Review alcohol and hazing awareness practices and invite student representatives to revise them.
• Invite local and university police to participate in training and encourage student involvement.
• Encourage students to feel responsible for each other. Provide information on hospital policies regarding notifying police about underage drinkers and transporting friends to the hospital for overdose treatment.
• Discourage students from being reluctant to call 911.
• Encourage faculty support for surveys of alcohol and drug use among students.
• Consider mandatory alcohol and hazing updates for club sports, Greek organizations and student athletes.
"We appreciate the changes they are coming to. We wish they came earlier," Starks said.
The Utah State University freshman succumbed to alcohol poisoning in November 2008 while pledging at Sigma Nu fraternity, in a case prosecutors deemed was hazing. Starks' Salt Lake City family sued the university for an alleged failure to address Sigma Nu's past misconduct but is dropping the suit after USU agreed to strengthen efforts to prevent alcohol abuse.