They have bonded together over a shared experience no parent wants to have.
Combined, they have lost 16 children, including one – Tucker Hipps – who went to Clemson University.
Young adults they sent to college with the brightest hopes for their future, only to get the unimaginable news they had died in what was supposed to be the fun process of joining a fraternity.
Next weekend, the parents of children who lost their lives in college hazing incidents will come together for a meeting in South Carolina. They hope to share their pain with each other, and plan for what they might be able to do next if they work together.
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“If you haven’t lost a child, you don’t understand what it’s like,” said Debbie Smith, who is helping to organize the parents’ retreat Feb. 23-24 in Greenville.
The meeting is being hosted by Cindy Hipps, whose son Tucker died on a fraternity run at Clemson on Sept. 22, 2014. His family thinks hazing led to Tucker’s fatal fall from a bridge over Lake Hartwell that morning.
Since then, Hipps has spoken on the phone or online with many parents who lost children in similar circumstances. But this will be the first time she has met with many of the other parents in person.
“I’ve been wanting to get together with other parents for the past couple years,” Hipps said. “Then, one day, I was talking to someone (online), and Debbie came in and said she would help.”
The meeting has grown from Hipps’ original, more modest plans into a two-day summit, hosted by her employers at Greer’s Pelham Medical Center. It will include guest speakers and university representatives.
“I thought it would be a relaxing weekend,” Hipps said with a laugh.
Some of the parents at the meeting – which will be closed to the public – will be sharing their experiences for the first time. Others have been turning their pain toward anti-hazing efforts for more than a decade.
‘He was tortured’
In 2005, Smith’s son Matthew Carrington was attending California State University at Chico, near his family’s home in Pleasant Hill in the Bay Area. He pledged for an unsanctioned fraternity on campus.
On Feb. 2, he collapsed after doing callisthenics while drinking copious amounts of water in the frat house basement. Carrington died of water poisoning – all the water he had been told to drink caused a dangerous imbalance in his body’s electrolytes that caused a seizure.
“He was tortured,” Smith says. “I didn’t even know what hazing was. I thought he had an accident, and, then, they said the word ‘killed.’
“He was killed by hazing.”
‘He was tortured. I didn’t even know what hazing was. I thought he had an accident, and, then, they said the word “killed.” He was killed by hazing.’
— Debbie Smith, whose son, Matthew Carrington, was attending California State University at Chico in 2005, when he collapsed and died after doing callisthenics in the basement of an unsanctioned fraternity
But because of how California’s anti-hazing law was written, the young men responsible for Carrington’s death couldn’t be charged – they were not part of a school-sponsored organization.
“How can you kill someone, and it’s not illegal?” his mother asked.
Smith pushed California to adopt “Matt’s law,” which tightened anti-hazing rules and made hazing a felony in cases where death or serious injury occur.
Smith then transferred her grief into the Anti-Hazing Awareness – or AHA! – movement.
The group, founded on the 10-year anniversary of Carrington’s death, focuses on educating high school and middle school students – and their parents – about hazing before they get to college.
“If I didn’t know, other parents don’t know either,” Smith said.
“You want to do something so you know your child did not die in vain,” she said. “I don’t want other kids to continue to suffer.”
‘You want to do something so you know your child did not die in vain.’
— Debbie Smith
‘He’s basically dying in front of you’
Kim Burch’s son Nolan died a month after Tucker Hipps.
He collapsed and died after a night of heavy drinking at a West Virginia University fraternity house.
Burch got in touch with Cindy Hipps through her sister, who lives in North Carolina.
“My sister’s hairdresser was a friend of a friend of Cindy’s, so we were able to exchange phone numbers,” Burch said.
As part of their settlement with West Virginia, the Buffalo, N.Y., family was able to get surveillance camera footage from the night Nolan died. School administrators had installed it in the frat house after a previous drinking incident.
Nolan’s mother describes watching her unconscious son being “dragged on all fours” into a room and placed on a wooden table. There, fraternity brothers realize the freshman pledge isn’t breathing and spend an agonizingly long time trying to find a way to revive him.
“He’s basically dying in front of you,” Burch said. After several minutes, “one boy got his heart going again, so we got to have two more days with him before he died.”
‘He’s basically dying in front of you. One boy got his heart going again, so we got to have two more days with him before he died.’
Kim Burch, whose son Nolan died after a night of heavy drinking at a West Virginia University fraternity house that was recorded on a surveillance camera
Burch wants to use the footage to help educate young people about the dangers of alcohol, maybe show it in schools with one of Nolan’s friends narrating the edited footage.
But she isn’t ready for the tape to be seen yet.
“We just watched it ourselves, and it’s disturbing,” Burch said. “It made me want to go down there and find them.”
‘Change ... or go extinct’
This year’s meeting will focus on establishing connections between the parents and planning future action.
The parents want to focus both on educational opportunities and on legislation like the Tucker Hipps Transparency Act, passed by the S.C. Legislature in 2016. The law requires colleges and universities to report fraternity and sorority violations publicly.
Hipps says her next goal is supporting the federal Reach Act – a bill that would add fraternity abuses to the federal law that already requires colleges to report campus crime numbers.
Hipps said she isn’t opposed to Greek organizations on campus but wants to work with college students to make them better.
“They need to change their culture or go extinct,” Hipps said.
They (Greek organizations) need to change their culture or go extinct.
— Cindy Hipps, whose son, Tucker, died at Clemson in 2014
The parents also want the meeting to be the start of regular get-togethers that they hope will attract other parents who have lost children.
Smith says social media has made talking to other parents easier, but it’s not a substitute for face-to-face meetings – even if things are easier now than when she was advocating for Matt’s law.
“Back then, I couldn’t send an email to more than 30 people at a time,” Smith said.
Smith doesn’t hold her son’s death against fraternities in general. Her organization even works with some men who were members of Matt’s fraternity at the time of his death.
“He was a really good, kind person who cared about other people,” Matt’s mother said. “I’ve forgiven them because that’s what he would have done.”
‘He was a really good, kind person who cared about other people. I’ve forgiven them because that’s what he would have done.’
— Debbie Smith