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Father of USU student who died in '08 pleased with school's latest action in alcohol incident

By John Hollenhorst and Pat Reavy | Posted - Oct. 2, 2011 at 10:30 p.m.

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SALT LAKE CITY — The father of an 18-year-old USU student who died of alcohol poisoning in 2008 is pleased with the quick action of both students and school officials over the latest incident involving binge drinking.

Utah State University has suspended the Gamma Epsilon chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha indefinitely after a 17-year-old girl was rushed to a local hospital last week after consuming an excessive amount of alcohol.

But in this case, because other students reported what was happening and got the girl to the hospital, the 17- year-old girl made a full recovery and was released from the hospital the day after it happened.

George Starks told KSL Sunday he was pleased with the response of everyone involved, from the school to the students who helped.

"We had pushed very hard as a family for the Good Samaritan Law, and hopefully in this case it came into play," Starks said. "The lives of our children must never be weighed against the possible self-incriminating legal risks we take in alerting emergency personnel to life and death situations."

In 2008, Starks' son Michael was bound with cords, body-painted and forced to drink vodka during an off- campus initiation while pledging at the Sigma Nu fraternity. His body was later found to contain more than four times the legal limit of alcohol.

They are rising to the occasion in attempting to make meaningful changes in campus policy -- changes that help save lives.

–- George Starks

Twelve students were charged with hazing. Only five were convicted of lesser offenses for supplying the alcohol and obstruction of justice by hiding the bottle. They were sentenced to short jail terms.

The Starks family filed a lawsuit against the university but earlier this year announced a settlement when USU agreed to increase its efforts to prevent alcohol abuse.

George Starks said the latest binge drinking incident at the school was tragic, "but I'm not terribly surprised. Things have a way of repeating themselves."

But in this case, the university and police took swift action — something Starks said did not happen after his son's death. If it had, he thinks this latest incident may have been prevented.

"We're not displeased with what the university has done by any means. What we are a little bit displeased with is the fact that people have to know there are consequences for their actions and when we mitigate the results of the consequences of what we do, it takes away the example of what we should be doing," he said. "There's always consequences to our actions, but when we do away with the consequences as we did in my son's case, there's really no lesson to be learned."

In the latest incident, the female student was taken to a local hospital with "an extreme blood-alcohol" content," said James Morales, USU vice president for Student Services. Authorities say there was a good chance the girl could have died if she did not receive the attention she did.

"Those are very serious matters and when they come to our attention, we act quickly. We act reasonably and in a fair and considered fashion. But we don't wait around to see what's going to happen before we take the action that we're capable of taking," he said.

If there is any "silver lining" to the incident, Morales said, it's that the education the university has been giving students since Starks' death about reporting incidents immediately and not hiding for fear of prosecution, seems to be working.

The lives of our children must never be weighed against the possible self- incriminating legal risks we take in alerting emergency personnel to life and death situations.

–- George Starks

The fraternity issued a prepared statement saying that "appropriate actions for the situation at hand" were taken and "we saved this young woman's life."

The chapter, however, said it was disappointed with its suspension and hoped a fair and objective investigation would be conducted by the university.

George Starks admitted there is a little bit of envy because no one took the action for his son that students did for the 17-year-old girl. But he is also "ecstatic" that she will be OK.

"We think about Mike everyday. We think about what might have been, what could have been, what should have been. But life is still a gift and we have to take advantage of that. We have to move ahead," he said.

Starks is also pleased with the efforts the university has made since his son's death.

"They are rising to the occasion in attempting to make meaningful changes in campus policy — changes that help save lives, changes to win the confidence of parents, and changes that so admirably affect their own commitment to the safety of our children," he said.

Those charged with Michael Starks' death were mostly unrepentant, his father said, and blamed Michael for his own death.

"We live in times when the buck stops nowhere — no responsibility, no blame, no pain. Michael paid for his own mistakes with his life."

But George Starks said both parents and students need to be made more aware of binge drinking and how students are essentially on their own when they leave home.

"We know how peer pressure works. We know how when kids get together you suddenly stop being one. You're a group. There's a certain herd mentality that loses sight of the individual," he said.

"Our failure to look after each other is an issue. We are our brother's keeper and we have to acknowledge that. We can't simply go on our merry way and say 'I'm OK and you're not.' That's not the society we live in. If we claim to be a Christian nation we have to stand with each other and support each other.

"And in this case they did."

Witten by John Hollenhorst and Pat Reavy.


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