Her son died during a hell week induction 12 years ago. Now she’s started an anti-hazing campaign

‘It was a crushing blow in an instant and our family changed and it hasn’t been the same since’

Debbie Smith hasn’t forgotten the day that she saw her son dead on the gurney at Enloe Hospital in Chico.

Her nightmare came true on February 2, 2005, when Matthew Carrington died after being forced to drink gallon after gallon of water as part of “hell week” for induction into the Chi Tau fraternity at California State University, Chico.

During the process, brothers sprayed the new pledges with ice-cold air as were forced to do hundreds of pushups during the annual five-day hazing spree. They weren’t allowed to go to the bathroom or leave the basement, causing Carrington to fall into a seizure.

A good student and standup young man overall, Carrington continues to be remembered by many people. One way that in which he is honored is through the Anti Hazing Awareness (AHA) Campaign, which educates students and parents about the dangers of hazing.

We spoke to his mother Debbie about continuing her son’s legacy and educating others on how to prevent tragedies like these from occurring.

What is the AHA movement and how did it start?

It’s created in memory of my son Matt Carrington. It was something I wanted from the time he was killed, since we didn’t know what hazing was, if I knew what it was Matt would have known. At first I had to figure out what hazing was because at that point it was just a word. It’s continuing because they [kids] don’t know what it is, they don’t realize what it can lead to. People believe hazing and bullying are the same thing. Bullying is when someone, picks a victim out for whatever reason, and treats them reprehensibly with no end in sight. Hazing has a purpose, to be eventually welcomed into the group, it is choreographed, it has a beginning, middle and end. In the beginning it seems harmless, almost fun but they don’t know what they are going to eventually go through.

How did you feel when you heard the news of Matt’s death?

Shock. I had gotten a call from my husband that something had happened and that Matt was in the hospital in Chico, that we needed to find him. They told me they found him in a basement and he was not responsive. At that point they didn’t tell us he had passed, but it felt like they weren’t telling me everything. About halfway to Chico I forced the social worker to tell me, and she said that Matt had passed. It was a crushing blow in an instant and our family changed and it hasn’t been the same since.

Anti-Hazing Awareness table at Chico State. Photo courtesy of wemissyoumatt.com

Was Matt aware of the potential risks before joining the fraternity?

No, he had never an intention of joining a fraternity. Matt didn’t have a lot of friends in Chico, but one friend really wanted to join and he talked him into going to look with him. This fraternity really liked Matt, and told him that if he would join then they would let Mike pledge. He ended up liking it, he didn’t foresee anything like this. They don’t tell you, it’s just a process.

How long did it take you to form the AHA movement?

It was a 10th anniversary that we launched the AHA movement. From time killed there was always something that we were doing. It was getting the process of accountability of what the brothers did to him, there’s no accountability and your life never changes. They need justice, to spend some time in jail. The way the California law was written it had no hazing law in the penal code so we knew once we had that done we could get Matt’s Law passed. We had Attorney D.A. Ramsey work on plea bargains for each of the brothers. I had them work on documentaries and any interviews that I thought looked powerful they had to attend.

I’m not mad at them, got over that so long ago, seven months I had completely forgiven them from the  killed Matt. We made a difference in Matt’s memory, now our mission is life to change other people’s lives.

Can you explain more about the Be Aware and advocacy programs?

Be Aware is something we’re taking to middle schools, high schools and colleges. The most important thing for me for when they walk away is to recognize hazing. Hazing starts as young as elementary school and because people accept it, it gets harder not to as you get older. By the time they finish this, when they get into high school and college and things are expected of them, they’re able to say “no I don’t need to bond in this sort of way.”

There’s hazing in every aspect of every kind of group, in drama, athletics, cheerleading, debate teams. It’s important that young people understand other ways that we can build character. The most important thing for me is that they get it.

How can you become an ambassador?

We want to bring the attitude of “this is something for you to do if you want to change lives.” We train you in everything we know, we tell Matt’s story so you can tell it forwards and backwards. It’s easier if it’s your peers because kids know what’s going on more and are able to say it to someone their age and in school rather than grown up where they don’t have confidence. That’s the thing, we don’t judge.

How long did it take for Matt’s law to be passed by the court?

From my understanding it went really fast. It was written in 2005 during the process when the criminal case written and by September we began to look for sponsors and send out letters, but we weren’t getting great responses. I decided to send a letter to our local Senator Tom Torlakson to see if we could make that happen and it did. By end of January he said he’d sponsor it. April 2006 was our first committee meeting and by the end of September 2006 it was signed into law.

What did the Campus Nightmares episode entail?

That was probably the best one because it was a biographical story of who Matt was. Other documentaries were either violent, about schools, or hazing, the other was bystander effect. But this one was about his story, Matt and who he was. This one was a whole hour of just Matt, they shared who he was as a person and you were connected which was important to me. When they approached me about it in December of 2012, but it went through the cracks. A few months they called me after the first of the year saying it was back on and we start doing interviews in 2013, my younger son Travis and two of Matt’s good friends did interviews.

We went to Orville to see Attorney D.A. Ramsey and to Chico to see Detective Greg Keeney. We also went to the hospital to see and visit the social worker for the first time since he died. It was an amazing trip to see these people then take part. Jerry Lim, one of the guys that killed Matt who I work with now on it, Mike the other pledge was in it. We watched it together and August 13, 2014 in Chico I was doing an interview doing a mock trial at Chico State, that’s when I knew it was time for AHA. We have to think of a name when I was talking in this interview live.

Matt and his brother Travis. Photo courtesy of wemissyoumatt.com

What kind of hazing stories have you come across in your work with AHA?

I know the story of Harrison Kowiak, he was forced to run a football field that was empty at the time in the middle of North Carolina. They were blindfolded and forced to run down the football field while being punched with sticks and were laid down unconscious. They just assumed he would be OK and at some point in time realized take them to the hospital where he died a few days later. Those things happen a lot.

There was another one where young men in the early years were electrocuted in bed box springs, and fell into an empty pool and died. The one with Adrian Heideman, where he was forced to drink copious amounts of alcohol they took him into a basement put on a couch down there and then left him not realizing on his back and he vomited. Most of them are alcohol deaths for the most part.

Do you think AHA has a message that has more to it beyond hazing?

I think once we really nail down everything, well especially alcohol because everyone other than Mike and Matt were drinking they were drunk. I’m not against alcohol at all, but when you’re young and overindulge you don’t realize you do things that you don’t normally do. Gabe Maestretti doesn’t remember a lot of it because he was so drunk.

Most of the time time kids die of alcohol poisoning because they’ve never had alcohol before. Parents won’t like this, but why not under controlled area allow them to taste it with a little effect so it’s not the first time and they over indulge.

Matt as a teenager. Photo courtesy of wemissyoumatt.com

What advice would you give students who may be faced with these decisions in the future?

I would say take a step back, get out of that situation. If you have friends you can go to, have some dialogue with parents- it’s important to keep those lines open, it’s amazing what they can do if you allow them to. If you’re in a situation you don’t need to be part of, if they’re not treating you with respect it’s definitely not for you.

You can learn more about the AHA campaign at ahamovement.org