Hazing News

USU tries to distance itself from Sigma Nu death

USU has no plans to increase oversight of Greeks
Hazing » Past pledges were encouraged to drink, charges allege

By Brian Maffly

The Salt Lake Tribune

Although prosecutors allege a fatal fraternity initiation prank followed a recurring pattern, Utah State University officials say they have no plans to more closely monitor its affiliated Greek-letter societies.

Hazing charges filed Friday in Logan’s 1st District Court allege that Sigma Nu fraternity pledges have been encouraged to drink at past induction events. That came as a surprise to campus officials, according to USU general counsel Craig Simper.

“These so-called initiations are very private, sometimes secretive. Only members are invited to participate,” Simper said Monday. Any notion that the school can and should track the activities of fraternities and sororities, which count 308 members in 10 chapters at the Logan campus, is misguided, he added.

“That’s a double-edged sword,” Simper said. “Why would we want to assume that kind of responsibility? We don’t act as parents. We impose rules on them and we expect people to follow the student code.”

Michael Starks, an 18-year-old freshman from Salt Lake City, was being feted as Sigma Nu’s top pledge when he consumed a lethal dose of vodka during an initiation party at a member’s off-campus home in Logan, charges allege. He was in the company of several teen-age members of the Chi Omega sorority, who “captured” and painted him as a reward. They also gave him a liter of vodka to drink, prosecutors allege.

Court documents indicate that Starks and another pledge, 22-year-old

Mack Perry, gladly participated in the ritual. Under Utah’s hazing statute, however, a victim’s consent is irrelevant.

“The activity was done in fun and is supposed to build brotherhood among the pledges,” prosecutor Tony Baird wrote in an affidavit supporting the charges. The previous spring, Sigma Nu pledge John Lynn, now a 19-year-old member, was treated in a similar manner.

Lynn was asked to visit the Chi Omega sorority, next door to Sigma Nu, where the young women “kidnapped” him, Lynn told police investigating the Starks matter.

“They bound his hands with duct tape and transported him to an unknown house in Logan,” charging documents state. “Once inside an upstairs room, the girls started to kiss his face, leaving lip marks and used markers to write their names on his arms. With his consent, they shaved the Sigma Nu and Chi Omega logos on the back of his head.”

Before being “rescued” by other Sigma Nu pledges, Lynn became very drunk off a bottle of vodka the women provided, according to the charges. Lynn, who was not charged in the Starks case, was home late on the night of Nov. 20 when Starks and Perry stumbled into the fraternity house after their bout of drinking with sorority women.

He woke up at 4 a.m. with paramedics in the house defibrillating Starks’ unresponsive body. Medical examiners determined his blood alcohol was approaching five times the legal limit for driving when his respiratory system failed.

Prosecutors have charged the two Greek chapters involved and 12 members with hazing in connection with Starks’ death, but no one was charged with hazing Perry or Lynn. Summons will be issued this week and court dates have yet to be set.

“Our lives have been irreparably hurt by what has taken place,” said Starks’ father in a prepared statement. “At the same time we express our heartfelt sorrow for other parents of their own children caught up in this heartbreaking tragedy in a moment of careless actions on their part, resulting in this tragic situation.”

The university and the Greek chapters’ national offices were waiting for Logan police to complete their investigation before moving forward with their own inquiries, officials said.

The university has already indefinitely suspended the two Greek chapters involved, as had Sigma Nu and Chi Omega’s headquarters.

“All we care about is that [the chapters] don’t do anything in relation to this university anymore. I feel confident the university has done all it can legally at this time,” Simper said.

USU officials expect to initiate proceedings against students identified in the criminal case, but the process is not open to the public.

“The university student code has a policy against hazing that mirrors state law,” officials said in a brief prepared statement late Monday. “An administrative student disciplinary process will be carried out against any of our students who may have hazed other USU students or violated other sections of the Student Code.”

By Hank Nuwer

Journalist Hank Nuwer is the Alaska author of Hazing: Destroying Young Lives; Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. In April of 2024, the Alaska Press Club awarded him first place in the Best Columnist division and Best Humorist, second place.

He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His current book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press. He is married to Malgorzata Wroblewska Nuwer of Warsaw, Poland and Fairbanks, Alaska. Nuwer is a former columnist for the Greenville (Ohio)Early Bird and former managing editor of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner in Alaska.
Nuwer was named the Ohio Society of Professional Journalists columnist of the year in 2021 for his “After Darke” column in the Early Bird. He also won third place for the column in 2022 from the Indiana chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. He and his wife Gosia, recently of Union City, Ind., have owned 20 acres in Alaska for many years. “The move is a sort-of coming home for us,” said Nuwer. As a journalist, he’s written about the Alaskan Iditarod sled-dog race and other Alaska topics. Read his musings in his blog at Real Alaska Daily-- and in his weekly column "Far from Randolph" in the Winchester Star-Gazette of Randolph County, Indiana.

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