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Posted on Thu, Mar. 30, 2006

Death prompts hazing bill


Matt Carrington's presence is everywhere at his mother's Pleasant Hill home, but Debbie Smith is not willing to stop her fight until her son's name is well known in Sacramento, too.

Smith is pressing state lawmakers to pass what she calls "Matt's Law," a bill that would crack down on hazing rituals such as the one that killed her son last year at Chico State. The proposal would make it easier to prosecute violators who are not college students and give California one of the strictest hazing laws in the country.

"I don't want to see a bunch of kids in prison, but they have to be held accountable," said Smith, surrounded in her living room by photographs of her 21-year-old son. "It's a crime, and it should be a criminal act to torture and kill."

That is the message Smith and her friends and relatives have printed on colorful fliers being passed out to Sacramento legislators before April hearings on the bill. In one corner of the flier is a picture of the smiling Carrington; ringing the sheet of paper are other photos, mostly of grieving friends and relatives after Carrington's death.

Carrington died in February 2005 after being forced to drink gallons of water and do calisthenics in frigid air so he could be initiated into the Chi Tau fraternity, which had previously been kicked off the Chico campus for alcohol violations. Several fraternity members later agreed to jail terms of up to one year, but not before prosecutors struggled to work within the confines of current hazing laws.

State law limits hazing prosecutions to students, and some of Carrington's tormentors did not attend college. The proposed law would move hazing prohibitions from the Education Code to the Penal Code.

Sen. Tom Torlakson, D-Antioch, who introduced the bill, said Smith's emotional appeals prompted him to act.

"The more you think about it and hear the plea of a parent, it moves you and you think of the stupidity and harm hazing causes," Torlakson said. "I felt this was something that would strengthen the law."

The new law would define hazing as harmful initiation rituals for entry into any organization, student-related or otherwise, and it would allow felony charges in the event of injury or death. It also would hold the organizations accountable for hazing.

Some hazing experts say more states should hold fraternities responsible.

"Unfortunately, the lack of that kind of legislation allows organizations to pawn off illegal actions on individuals," said Douglas Fierberg, a Washington lawyer who has represented Carrington's family in lawsuits against fraternity members. "They wait for a circumstance in which it's exposed by a school or by an injured student and then they react."

At Chico State, Carrington's death had swift and heavy consequences for fraternities and sororities. University president Paul Zingg banned alcohol in chapter houses, raised academic requirements and postponed recruitment activities.

Campus officials hoped to crack down on hazing and other bad behavior, and the actions prompted several Greek organizations to disband. But hazing has been around since at least the 1800s, and officials said they are waiting to see how much influence they have had on long-standing traditions.

"It's a continuous attempt to change the culture," said Herman Ellis, Chico State's assistant vice president for student life. "That's not going to happen overnight."

Fraternity leaders at Chico State could not be reached for comment, while Greeks at UC Berkeley, which has dealt with its own hazing incidents, did not return phone or e-mail messages.

Hazing opponents such as Smith say stricter laws would help prevent deadly incidents by making the rules clearer. College administrators say students rarely understand that hazing is illegal.

Carrington's death "was so preventable," his mother said. "It didn't have to happen, and it doesn't have to happen again."

2006 and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved.