Tragedy a decade on
Reflecting on Chico State student Matthew Carrington’s death 10 years ago
Next Monday (Feb. 2) will mark 10 years since 21-year-old Chico State student Matthew Carrington died of water intoxication after a hazing ritual in the basement of a local fraternity house. And just as she did on that day a decade ago, Carrington’s mother, Debbie Smith, is coming to Chico.
Smith’s new nonprofit organization, the AHA! Movement (Anti-Hazing Awareness), will show an hour-long documentary titled Campus Nightmares: Matt’s Story at Chico State to mark the anniversary of Carrington’s death. During a phone interview with the CN&R, Smith said that, to this day, most of the students she speaks to across the country already know her son’s name.
“Young people everywhere know his story,” she said, “because it’s so different.”
During spring semester of 2005, Carrington and friend Mike Quintana were pledging the since-disbanded Chi Tau fraternity. Beginning on Jan. 30, the pair successfully endured two nights of “hell week,” an initiation that included sleeping overnight in the fraternity house’s frigid basement and vigorous exercise.
On the third night, Feb. 1, Carrington and Quintana were made to stand on one foot on a bench and answer difficult questions about the fraternity’s history into the early morning hours. Incorrect answers were punished by push-ups on the basement floor or drinking as much water as they could out of a five-gallon jug. (The jug reportedly was refilled five times.) They were also told to douse themselves with water while being blasted by cold air from fans.
At around 4 a.m., Carrington collapsed in the middle of a push-up and went into a seizure. Even then, fraternity members hesitated to call 911, and only did so about an hour later, once they realized Carrington wasn’t breathing. He died shortly after arriving at Enloe Medical Center. As was later determined, his death was caused by cardiac dysrhythmia and cerebral edema, or brain-swelling, due to water intoxication. Hypothermia was also a contributing factor.
The story of Carrington’s death was picked up by media outlets from Dateline NBC to Playboy magazine, and stayed in the national news cycle for months. Later that year, four of the fraternity members involved pleaded guilty to charges of involuntary manslaughter in Butte County Superior Court, and in 2006 the state Senate passed Matt’s Law, which allows for felony prosecutions when serious injuries or deaths result from hazing rites.
Smith has since made it her mission to change the hazing culture engrained on college campuses. The AHA! Movement focuses on early education—before high school and college—and making the distinction between hazing and bullying. For Smith, the Campus Nightmares documentary, which originally aired on A&E Network last August, is a valuable education tool because it succeeds in capturing her son’s personality.
“That’s important to me because people need to know who Matt was to care about him,” she said. “They did a good job showing he was kind, generous and smart.”
Connie Huyck currently serves as associate director of University Housing and Food Service at Chico State. But back in 2005 she was the adviser for Greek Life (now Fraternity and Sorority Affairs). When asked to reflect on Carrington’s legacy at Chico State, Huyck said his memory is still making a mark on the university.
“First of all, I was the sole person working with Greek Life at the time,” she said. “Now, we have three full-time advisers working with Greeks. So, the university has put energy and resources into Fraternity and Sorority Affairs. We also have checks and balances. When a group veers off the path and does a minor hazing incident, we’re able to reel them back in, educate them and get them back on the path. Sometimes, that includes suspensions or probation. There’s more accountability.”
President Paul Zingg maintains that the student culture has since shifted as well. In an email, he cited an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education, published in December, which lists Chico State—along with Yale University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Lehigh University—as campuses that are effectively addressing party-school reputations.
“Matt’s death compelled a necessary and powerful response on this campus,” Zingg said. “And his mother’s advocacy and support have helped ensure that we sustain that commitment.”
Smith agreed that there are signs the university has made progress in addressing student hazing.
“I get letters, emails and Facebook messages from young people who read an article or saw the documentary,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘I’m so grateful I saw this, I’m going to be pledging in the spring.’ That’s how I know.”