Wednesday, January 26, 2011

USU Lawsuit in Fraternity Member's Death is Dropped

USU hazing suit dropped
School to review student safety policies in wake of fraternity death

By Matthew K. Jensen

The family of Michael Starks has agreed to drop a wrongful death suit against Utah State University after reaching a non-monetary settlement with the state.

Attorneys for the family said Tuesday the agreement provides several educational initiatives targeted at USU students that address the dangers of underage drinking and hazing.

Starks died Nov. 21, 2008, of alcohol poisoning after taking part in an off-campus Sigma Nu fraternity initiation activity. According to court documents, the 18-year-old was given vodka by members of a sister sorority at a home where the event took place.

The Sigma Nu fraternity and Chi Omega sorority closed their local chapters at USU in response to the death, and criminal charges were brought against 13 USU students.

In August 2009, George and Jane Starks of Salt Lake City filed a wrongful death suit against USU, arguing that it was the school's "benign neglect" that contributed to the death of their son. University officials countered the claim, saying student safety is paramount and that alcohol and hazing policies were in place long before the incident.

As part of the settlement, USU agreed to implement - at its discretion - five recommendations created by a special task force established in 2009. Their findings, presented to the USU Board of Trustees in May 2009, called for improved hazing and alcohol awareness training for campus clubs, Greek organizations and sports teams.

"We welcome this resolution," said James Morales, USU vice president of student services, in a prepared statement. "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."

George Starks, Michael's father, said the settlement helped his family accomplish what it set out to do.

"Hazing and binge drinking kills or injures far too many college students," said Starks in the statement. "And we look forward to the positive steps Utah State University has agreed to take to address this tragic problem."

The recommendations include inviting student representatives to review alcohol and hazing policies and to participate in future modifications of policies. In addition, the recommendations call for creating an annual hazing and alcohol training program for clubs, fraternity houses and athletes.

USU spokesman John DeVilbiss said the recommendations were well received and that the school is committed to student safety.

"We're committed to the recommendations," added USU spokesman John DeVilbiss. "And we remain totally committed to working closely with our students to educate them about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse."

DeVilbiss said the school will continue to stress the importance that student peers play in each other's safety.

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