PLEASANT HILL (KPIX 5) National statistics show almost half of young people have experienced some sort of hazing by the time they reach college. But an East Bay mother who lost her son to a hazing ritual is spreading the word to protect other families from a similar tragedy. She’s this week’s Jefferson Award winner.
Matt Carrington did what he was told while pledging a rogue fraternity at Chico State: he did pushups in raw sewage and chugged gallons of water while getting blasted with ice cold water and air. The 21-year-old died of water intoxication.
It was 2005, but his mother Debbie Smith knows the details by heart.
“Oh my God, my son spent the last days of his life in this disgusting sewage-infested, cold basement,” she recalled.
In his memory, Smith has changed her name to add “MM” for “Matt’s Mom.” And she exposes the horrors of hazing through her two-year-old nonprofit the Anti Hazing Awareness or AHA! Movement. She talks to students and parents, in schools and community groups. She describes how hazing can seem harmless at first – Matt had to carry a brick everywhere – but it quickly escalated to the brutality in the basement.
“I didn’t know he was brainwashed into thinking that was okay,” she explained.
Past Rotary President Jen Grossi, says Smith’s message is life saving.
“Each time I’ve had the opportunity to speak with Debbie, I’m always deeply, deeply moved,” Grossi said.
Smith has also extended forgiveness to the seven young men responsible for Matt’s hazing, including Jerry Lim, who spent several months in jail.
“To get that kind of forgiveness, it goes a long way in forgiving yourself eventually,” Lim said.
And now, as a father working toward his law license, Lim has joined Smith in speaking against hazing.
“Matt still had plenty of life ahead of him,” Lim said. “Anyway I can help make small amends for that I’m more than willing to do.”
Thanks to Smith’s persistence, Matt’s Law passed in California in 2006. Hazing was formerly charged only as a misdemeanor under the education code, rather than the state penal code, even if someone died. With Matt’s Law, hazing can be charged as a felony under the state penal code.
Smith says she’ll share Matt’s story with anyone who will listen. She’s driven by a dream she had after he died.
“He said, ‘Mom, I’m OK, and I want you to know they messed with the wrong Mom.’ Because he knew I would make sure something happened and that we would save lives in his memory,” she explained.
So for her anti hazing movement, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Debbie Smith, Matt’s Mom.
The AHA! Movement is organizing a fundraising Monte Carlo NIght on Friday, August 25, 2017 at the Pleasant Hill Community Center. Click here for details.