By Matt Krupnick
CONTRA COSTA TIMES
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
"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
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
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
"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
Carrington's death "was so preventable," his mother said. "It
didn't have to happen, and it doesn't have to happen again."