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Matt's Story: Anti-Hazing Awareness

Jun 30, 2015 06:47PM ● Published by Elena Hutslar

The Rise of the AHA! Movement

The Fateful Day

In the early morning hours of February 2, 2005, Matt Carrington, a California State University Chico State student from Pleasant Hill, was left to die in a dark, dirty, sewage-infested basement surrounded by walls that read, “In the basement, no one can hear you scream.” There to pledge the Chi Tau fraternity, a few blocks from campus, Matt endured a days-long, tortuous hazing ritual. He was forced to drink water from a five-gallon jug, refilled at least five times, required to pour enough water on himself to assure he stayed wet, and made to exercise vigorously while fans blew cold air on his body. The hazing continued until Matt's brain and heart swelled with water and his liver and kidneys failed due to water intoxication. He was terribly degraded and mistreated for the last three days of his life, all for the purpose of gaining admission into the fraternity. 

Since that fateful day, and in Matt’s memory, his family and friends have made it their mission to raise awareness of the dangers of hazing with the sole purpose of saving lives. Matt’s mother, Debbie Smith, MM (she added the suffix to stand for “Matt’s Mom” after his death), has worked tirelessly to prevent other parents from experiencing such a senseless loss and her heartbreaking pain. Her work has included holding annual vigils in Chico, where Matt spent his last days, and working with the campus to educate their students. She successfully lobbied state politicians to pass legislation to enhance hazing penalties. "Matt's Law" passed in September of 2006, making it a felony in California to actively participate in hazing where someone is seriously injured or killed and a misdemeanor when someone witnesses hazing activity, yet does nothing to stop it. Debbie’s work doesn’t stop there. Matt’s story has been part of a Lifetime Movie Network documentary film called, Campus Nightmares, and that experience spearheaded her newest endeavor – the AHA! Movement. 

 AHA! Movement (Anti-Hazing Awareness) is a non-profit organization Debbie founded to educate young people about the dangers of hazing and to help them recognize what hazing looks like. “I don’t care where you send your child to school, and what they say,” she insists, “because hazing is the best kept secret, and that is why it continues.” Debbie’s mission is to bring Matt’s story to all schools nationwide to make kids aware of the horrifying statistics, and most importantly, to empower them to say “no.”  

Culture of Hazing

In 2008, The National Study of Student Hazing from the University of Maine surveyed more than 11,000 college students nationwide from 53 colleges, across a range of organizations and athletic teams. Results showed more than half of college students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experience hazing (with varsity athletics and social fraternities/sororities having the highest rate), and 47% of students have experienced hazing prior to coming to college. Alcohol consumption, humiliation, isolation, sleep-deprivation, and sex acts are common hazing practices across student groups - rituals that often lead to traumatic injuries, including beating, branding, consuming nonfood substances, and simulated drowning. 

The study went on to show half of students surveyed acknowledge participating in activities defined as hazing, with 29% admitting they did potentially illegal things to join a group. Oddly, only 14% admitted to being hazed. This underscores a "disconnect" between how adults define hazing versus how students define it.

Many college websites post the definition of hazing as: “any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them, regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.” 

Cornell University has the following posted on their website to clarify the definition of hazing for their students:

If the answer to any of the questions below is "yes," the activity is probably hazing.
  • Does the activity involve mental distress such as humiliation or intimidation?
  • Does it involve physical abuse?
  • Is there a significant risk of injury or a question of safety?
  • Would you have any reservation describing the activity to your parents or a university official?
  • Is alcohol involved?
  • Would you be worried if the activity was shown on the evening news?

Perhaps some students consider hazing an expected “rite of passage.” Perhaps some are willing to endure this torture because they feel it’s necessary to be accepted as part of the group. Debbie stated, “We can say that hazing is wrong and that it will not be accepted, but until we can change the culture of the Greeks, clubs, etc., nothing is going to change.” Michael O’Brien, AHA! Board Chairman, added, “It is important to change the mindset. It can no longer be about torture and humiliation. It needs to be about respect, respect for yourself and others.”

A Mother’s Mission

Debbie was recently invited by Clayton Valley Charter and Concord High to give a presentation to the student body since many of them were preparing to graduate and go away to college. Susan Wood, who photographed the event at Concord High commented, “The AHA! Movement presentation was very powerful and heartfelt and brought tears to my eyes. Many of the students had heard of “hazing,” but none of them knew what it really meant. From the introductions, to the video of Matt’s life and death, to Debbie’s story and a great question/answer session, every student in the audience was fully engaged, hanging on every word. This is a must-see program for everyone! If you think it can’t happen to someone in your family, you need to talk to Debbie. The AHA! Movement will save lives!”

AHA! is currently scheduled to visit Cal Berkeley and Cal State University San Marcos during Hazing Prevention Week in September and Cal State Long Beach in August. Debbie hopes to eventually work with elementary schools to stop hazing before it begins. Her goal is to train ambassadors, ages 13-24, to work in age-appropriate programs. She believes the anti-hazing message will be more powerful coming from youth, and it is documented that hazing starts as early as elementary school. AHA! wants to “get other parents on board who have lost a child or have had a child victimized during a hazing,” said Debbie.

“Losing a child is absolute devastation. As parents, our job is to protect our children first and foremost.  I can no longer do that for Matt but I can do it for other parents and their children in his memory,” said Debbie. “Matt keeps me going, and wanting to do whatever I can to avoid another parent feeling the anguish and devastation of losing a child. He was such a kind, generous and loving person. I know in my heart this is what he would want me to do. Our lives have a new normal now, it can never be the same but we’ve learned to live with the cards we’ve been dealt and make the best of what we have.  But also, we will never forget what we had.”

How Can Parents Help?

  • Talk to your teen about hazing and its possible dangers so he or she can be more proactive in maintaining his or her safety.
  • Encourage your teen to research the organizations he or she is considering. Social media may be helpful, as research reports pictures are posted online in most hazing incidents.
  • Encourage your teen to maintain friendships across multiple settings, not just in one particular group.
  • Remind your teen that suspected hazing can be confidentially reported to campus officials.
  • Finally, remind your teen that when it gets to a point when it's dangerous or threatening, he or she can say “no.”  

Debbie’s next goal is to start a fund in Matt’s name to set up a hotline where a hazing in progress or suspected hazing can be safely reported.  The AHA! nonprofit is in the early stages of fundraising and can be supported at gofundme.com/kw5bf4. For more information on the AHA! Movement and Matt’s story, visit www.ahamovement.org, www.facebook.com/ahamovement or www.wemissyoumatt.com.



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