A Kentucky Student is Likely the Latest Binge Drinking Death. Colleges are Trying to Stop It.

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There was Timothy Piazza at Penn State, who died in 2017 from a fractured skull and shattered spleen after downing 18 drinks in less than two hours. He was 19.

In Max Gruver case, former LSU student won't be prosecuted on hazing charge | Courts | theadvocate.com

Later that year, there was 18-year-old Maxwell Gruver, who choked on his own vomit. A freshman at Louisiana State University, his blood-alcohol content was .496 — six times more than the legal driving limit of .08.

Not even two months later, Andrew Coffey, 20, died with a blood alcohol content of .447 — though bodily fluids showed it had reached .558. He had just transferred that semester to Florida State University.

The names go on and on.

Sam Martinez, 19, was a Washington State University student who died after trying to drink down half a gallon of rum with one other student.

Olivia Chutich, 19, was an Iowa State University student who died from hypothermia and alcohol poisoning after she spent the night outside in 3-degree weather.

James Gilfedder, 19, of Lyon College in Arkansas was found dead in his dorm room from alcohol intoxication.

Stone Foltz, 20, of Bowling Green State University in Ohio, died after drinking the equivalent of about 40 shots.

Most recently, they include Thomas ‘Lofton’ Hazelwood, an 18-year-old University of Kentucky student who was found unresponsive Oct. 18 at a fraternity house on campus and later died from what officials said was likely alcohol poisoning.

Thomas ‘Lofton’ Hazelwood

Thomas 'Lofton' HazelwoodThe tragic results of binge drinking on college campuses have played out over decades. Aside from hundreds of deaths attributed to alcohol every year, there are hundreds of thousands of assaults, sexual assaults and unintentional injuries on or near U.S. college campuses reported annually.

Studies also show about 25% of students struggle academically due to drinking. A national survey conducted in 2020 indicated more than a third of college students had binge drank in the past month.

Officials, researchers and community advocates have attempted to craft policies and programs to curb what long had been accepted as part of college life.

Legislation has been passed, safety indexes created, educational training seminars presented to stop binge drinking.

Yet, headlines outlining a college parent’s worst fear continue to clutch communities across the country, the latest being UK’s campus and Hazelwood’s hometown of Henderson, Kentucky.

And the culture that perpetuates the notion that alcohol is an intrinsic aspect to the college experience — where bars near campus run $1 drink specials and fraternity parties continue to defy zero-tolerance hazing rules — persists.

Students protected from prosecution

From left to right: Scott, Carson, Julia and Hayden Starkey in Annapolis, Maryland, on November 10, 2006.In the aftermath of Carson Starkey’s death from alcohol poisoning in 2008, Texas became the first state to pass legislation that grants college students protection from prosecution if they call for help when a friend has had too much.

Starkey, a freshman at California Polytechnic State University and Texas native, was pledging to become a fraternity member when he died after being ordered to drink large quantities of beer and liquor. Some members started to take Starkey to the hospital but turned around because they were worried about getting in trouble. They put Starkey on a mattress in the frat house. His blood alcohol content was .40%.

His parents helped to pass Texas’ 911 Lifeline Law in 2011 and since then, more than 35 states have passed versions of the legislation, including Kentucky.

In addition to the new laws, Starkey’s parents started a nonprofit focused on providing students with education on the dangers of binge drinking and recognizing the signs of alcohol poisoning.

The programming has been used by universities across the country, and Cal Poly officials believe it has contributed to the dramatic drop in student hospitalizations for alcohol poisoning seen in the 13 years since Starkey’s death.

A difference in state law versus the chapter laws of fraternities could contribute to members’ reluctance to call for help in dire situations, though.

Fears over frat repercussions?

In many of the cases involving student alcohol deaths, criminal charges were brought against frat members — with charges ranging from hazing to providing alcohol to minors to negligent homicide. Many of the states where those deaths occurred have passed laws that protect students from legal trouble if they call 911 for a drunken minor.

Whether any charges will come from Hazelwood’s death is not yet known.

Despite the protection from prosecution, though, there are zero-tolerance rules banning hazing and hard liquor in fraternities that are part of the North American Interfraternity Conference. If chapters are found to have broken these rules, it could result in members being expelled from the frat or the entire frat being removed from campus.

Memorial Hall on UK's campus in Lexington.

“I do think that is a challenge that we need to work through because if they call, there can be other consequences,” said Corrine Williams, UK’s acting associate vice president for student well-being. “They are protected in terms of that individual piece, but the frat chapter could still be shut down or sanctioned. And I think that is something we need to think about — how can we better support students in what is already a difficult decision in calling for help and help them understand the importance of calling.”


It is unclear how many college students die due to alcohol poisoning, and what percentage of the deaths are associated with greek life culture. Media coverage of these deaths has focused largely on those that are frat-affiliated — cases that have led to a variety of policy changes and dozens of arrests after reports surfaced that described scenes in which the deceased young man suffered with the effects of alcohol poisoning for several hours before receiving medical attention.

In some, the death could have been prevented if there hadn’t been such a delay.

In an emailed statement from the North American Interfraternity Conference, spokesperson Todd Shelton offered the association’s condolences for the family and friends of Hazelwood.

“Alcohol consumption is a danger across campuses today as 1,500 college students die each year from alcohol-related unintentional injuries,” he said. “Fraternities continue to lead in efforts to protect students by requiring educational programming and enforcing stricter health and safety guidelines than applied to non-fraternity students.”

He pointed to the ban of hard alcohol in frat houses and at events, as well as the alcohol education provided to members.

“Through the Anti-Hazing Coalition, the NIC and other organizations and parents of hazing victims are advocating for state legislation that strengthens penalties for hazing — especially when death, injury or alcohol are involved,” he wrote.

The statistic that about 1,500 college students die annually from alcohol-related unintentional injuries is often cited, though that number takes into account car crashes in which the student wasn’t legally intoxicated or wasn’t the person who was drunk.

Aside from the number of deaths, an unknown number of students end up in the hospital each year due to alcohol poisoning.

In California, Stanford administrators expressed concern this month after 10 students were transported to the hospital for alcohol poisoning in September — a rate far higher compared to previous years (two in 2016, four in 2017, eight in 2018 and three in 2019.)

Also in October, hundreds of students gathered in protest against one fraternity on the University of Missouri campus in response to a freshman who’d been at an event being taken to the hospital due to alcohol poisoning. He was still in critical condition as of Monday.

Researchers suggest universities employ different strategies for certain groups to decrease dangerous drinking. There are strategies meant to target students who might already have a drinking problem; strategies for students who fall in at-risk groups such as first-year students; and strategies geared toward the entire campus.

Kentucky seeks to improve alcohol education

Since being thrust into the limelight following Hazelwood’s tragic death last week, the University of Kentucky is reexamining its current alcohol education programming and searching for areas to improve.

“We are taking a step back and saying ‘How are the various alcohol education programs doing? How is the other programming we are doing? How is engagement — are they taking advantage of it?’” Williams said.

Current programming includes a required two-part alcohol education course for new students and multiple alcohol-free events throughout the year. Additionally, a new interactive wellness unit, coined “The Learning Bar,” was launched this year — a voluntary unit for which professors, student organizations and small groups can register.

While survey data indicates a higher rate of the university’s students aren’t drinking, 5% disclosed in 2020 that they had binge drank in the previous two weeks. It is this group of students with which Williams’ office is most concerned.

Aside from creating more awareness of the dangers associated with excessive drinking, “one of the things we have been trying to do is to get to the underlying causes of the drinking,” Williams said. “How do we encourage you to find your community in terms of belonging? How do we make sure we have resources to address mental health issues that might lead individuals to use alcohol as a coping mechanism?”

In the aftermath of Hazelwood’s death, university officials first suspended all activities for the Farmhouse Fraternity — where Hazelwood was a member. Then, the suspension was expanded to include all activities for new Interfraternity Council members.

The university also announced all IFC members will be required to undergo training focused on hazing, alcohol use and bystander intervention.

That training, Williams said, will be an extension of the university’s violence bystander intervention program. Her department is working on how to extend and build upon that program to help students build the necessary skills to intervene in situations that involve alcohol or hazing.

“Whenever there is an event like this, it’s an opportunity to look at what we are doing and how we might be able to do things a little differently in certain areas,” she said.

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