Seeking an end to hazing deaths

HAZING is on no college or university's official curriculum. Yet hazing does occur with regularity on a number of campuses, and when things go wrong, it ends up in tragedy - and headlines. Our Cover Story is reported now by Tracy Smith.

It was a half-time show worthy of the Super Bowl, when Florida A&M's legendary band, the Marching 100, took the field for a college football game last November.

Just hours later, 26-year-old drum major Robert Champion lay dying in the band's bus . . . brutally beaten in an alleged hazing ritual.

Champion's senseless death sparked a national outcry over hazing . . . the same outcry as earlier last year after the hazing death of George Desdunes at Cornell . . . and in 2010 after the hazing death of Samuel Mason at Radford University . . . and in 2009 after the hazing death of Arman Partamian at Geneseo State . . .

The same outcry that has come with chilling regularity every year, for decades.

Hank Nuwer, a professor at Franklin College in Indiana, has spent the past 40 years documenting every hazing death in the United States. Since 1975, he says, "there's been a death every particular year. Would I be very surprised if 2012 goes by without a death? Yes."

Nuwer says hazing is anything that is required of a newcomer by veterans in a group that you have to go through - it may be silly, demeaning or dangerous.

And the record of dangerous, even deadly hazing, stretches back more than a century.

"The first verifiable incident, clearly, is 1873 at Cornell University," said Nuwer. "It's the death of Mortimer Leggett, who was the son of a Civil War general and hero. Leggett fell over the cliff. What got controversial is that there was a blindfold found there."

For the next hundred years, more deaths followed sporadically. But about 30 years ago, Nuwer noticed a disturbing trend.

The one constant in 82 percent of hazing deaths, Nuwer found, was massive quantities of alcohol - part of a growing culture of binge drinking that is all too common at college campuses across America.

"We're talking levels which would be approaching, basically half of your blood system being filled with liquor," he said. "In the death of Chuck Stenzel, when I interviewed the pathologist and went to the room where he did his autopsy, he basically said his brain was swimming in alcohol."

Chuck Stenzel died at Alfred University in New York in 1978, and the community was so outraged they passed the state's first anti-hazing law - one of 44 states to do so.

And yet, 30 years later, nothing much has changed.

Carson Starkey grew up in Austin, Texas. "He was a very likeable kid," said his mother, Julia, "very funny . . . Had a lot of friends. Was very outgoing, very outdoorsy."

Julia and Scott Starkey were thrilled when their son decided to attend Cal Poly, in San Luis Obispo, California.

His parents say Carson was not a kid who drank, and describe him as very health-conscious: "He'd always make fun of us, You know, 'You're eating too many chips!'" Julia laughed. "You know, he was always very concerned about what he ate and how much he got to exercise and how much time he got to spend outdoors."

Julia said that their reaction to the news that Carson wanted to pledge at a fraternity was surprise. She was concerned, so she searched the school and the fraternity's websites for information. There was nothing remotely alarming, though the fraternity - Sigma Alpha Epsilon - had been suspended the year before, for underage drinking, among other infractions.

"I even mentioned to Scott, you know, at least if he does something like this, he would have some people to take care of him and watch out for him, since he doesn't know anyone out there," Julia said.

Scott Starkey said they couldn't have been more wrong.

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