A coroner ruled last week that Edward (Ed) Farmer, A Newcastle University Economics student and member of the Agricultural Society, died as a result of a hypoxic brain injury due to prolonged cardiac arrest, on 14 December 2016.[pullquote]It was established very early on in the hearing that Ed had been attending an ‘initiation style’ event among 20-30 other first year students who were members of the Agricultural Society.[/pullquote]
The inquest into the circumstances surrounding Ed’s death was heard over a period of four days at a public hearing in the Civic Centre last week, where witnesses gave testimony to help determine the exact cause of death, and pinpoint a timeline of the evening that led up to this tragic event. It was established very early on in the hearing that Ed had been attending an ‘initiation style’ event among 20-30 other first year students who were members of the Agricultural Society. Ed’s alcohol intake was at 400mg per decilitre by the time it was assessed in the Royal Victoria Infirmary with Dr Messer, a consultant in intensive care medicine, confirming that it was at least four times over the drink drive limit.
During the initiation event Farmer consumed a significant amount of alcohol, was rendered immobile and unconscious for a period of time, and eventually taken to the Royal Victoria Infirmary by car where he then died on 14 December.
Throughout the hearing specific details of the initiation unfolded, including that one of the main purposes of the evening was the consumption of a large amount of alcohol over a small period of time. It was said that at least 100 vodka orange trebles were purchased in two locations on the bar crawl, with the consensus between witnesses being that freshers would have consumed around 3 per person at each stop.
James Carr, the Chairman of the Agricultural Society at the time of Ed’s death, recalled how on the Facebook event invite, first-years were encouraged to bring a number of items including: 70cl of hard spirit, thirty pounds, a metro ticket, swimming goggles, a kinder egg and lubrication. They were also told that they should not bring their student ID, or wear anything that would associate them with either the Agricultural society or the University.
At the beginning of the night, freshers were told to hand over their thirty pounds, from which drinks for the rest of the bar-crawl would be bought. Jonathan Headley, a first-year Newcastle University student at the time and attendee at the event, recalled a “table of orange trebles” in Basement bar, from which freshers were encouraged to drink.
The students were also lined up in an alleyway and ‘egged on’ to drink mouthfuls of spirits passed down the line. This was understood to be the 70cl of alcohol brought by the freshers as requested in the invitation.
Over the course of the evening many students were sick. Some of the second and third-year witnesses said that until they reached Basement they did not recall seeing anyone who was in trouble from the effects of alcohol, but did acknowledge that the aim of the event was to get the first-years drunk. Second and third-year students in attendance were what Carr called “more of a chaperoning measure.”
Beginning at 8pm at the Three Bulls Head Pub and ending at 41 Sanderson Road in West Jesmond at approximately 10.30pm, the drinking portion of the evening took place over a short two-and-a-half-hour period. Other activities in the evening included eating what Carr described as “not particularly desirable food”, understood to include items such as chicken feet, raw potato, raw eggs, garlic, dog food, milk mixed with wine and a pot of cinnamon, amongst other items.[pullquote]The nature of the peer-pressure experienced at these types of initiation events was questioned heavily throughout the inquest.[/pullquote]
Freshers were also expected to take part in “games” such as “lizard fighting”, where two students wrestle with two belts tied together and wrapped around their necks. At a house in Jesmond there was also the shaving of students’ heads, crawling through sheep hurdles, drinking vodka from a tube through a pig’s head, and apple-bobbing in a mixture of alcohol and urine. The event ended at approximately 11.30pm.
Ed was incapacitated due to alcohol consumption before many of these activities took place, having been carried into the Metro Station at Monument “unable to walk unaided.” The coroner reported that he was “carried into the house, laid down in the hallway and placed in the recovery position.” At some point in the evening Ed’s head was shaved by a person who remains unidentified.
Some of the second and third-year students stayed awake “monitoring” and “checking” first years who were unwell, including Ed. They fell asleep between 2am and 3am. At approximately 4.43am, Ed was discovered to have stopped breathing by one of the students. Henry Lindley described Ed as “quite pale, his tongue was yellow.” No ambulance was called and Carr drove Ed to hospital in his own vehicle “in the belief this was the quickest option.” Once in hospital, Dr Messer stated that “treatment failed to improve the situation” and Ed Farmer passed away on 14 December 2016.
The nature of the peer-pressure experienced at these types of initiation events was questioned heavily throughout the inquest. While witnesses claimed that there was “significant encouragement” to drink and participate, they said that no-one was “forced” to do so. One student, who was ill prior to the event on 12 December, received a text from James Carr that read “no pressure to go, but if you do not go you will regret it in some form.” Certain witnesses assured that there would be no consequences for missing the event other than “jokes”, and that it would not prevent members from advancing in the society.
Attitudes towards the event from first-year students were conflicted. Jonathan Headley reflected that he was “nervous, almost excited” while another witness remembered: “I was pretty excited, quite keen” but still had a “slight nervousness.” With regards to Ed himself, Henry Lindley’s statement claimed that he “looked very nervous when his money and drink were taken off him. He was physically shaking.” Headley commented that “he mentioned he was nervous when we walked down.”
Students’ attendance at the event despite “nervousness” was attributed to “tradition” and “bonding.” Carr stated that “it’s not you have to turn up to be anything. It’s that you want to, all your mates have done it for years.” Despite being offered the opportunity to leave at the start of the evening, one of the first-year’s statements read that they “would not be respected later if they left, no-one left. People were scared.”
Second and third-years suggested that they had experienced pressure to adhere to tradition in organising the event. Witnesses reiterated how they were “trying to recreate what had happened the year before” and that it had been a “tradition that was passed down to us.” Carr agreed that there was “a sort of pressure to expect this event went on” and an expectation to “keep tradition going.” Some witnesses said they knew others who had been to similar events. One referred to a “sister’s boyfriend at a different university” and another said they “knew that initiations existed before university due to word of mouth and older students.”
Initiation events are banned at Newcastle University, so events such as this are often kept under wraps and the extent of their organisation within sports clubs and societies is not fully known. Lesley Braiden, Academic Registrar and Director of Academic Services at Newcastle University, said that “it’s difficult to monitor such events” and that students often have “relatives and close friends who have described what to expect at these events” suggesting that there may be “cultural issues that get passed on by tradition in various ways.”[pullquote]Ed Farmer “died due to the toxic effects from the consumption of a large amount of alcohol in a short time and in part because the effects of alcohol were unknown.”[/pullquote]
The University and its students alike seem not to have been fully aware of the potentially fatal risks these events posed. Carr stated that it “didn’t even cross my mind that something like that would even be a significant possibility.” The fact that Ed was said to be “snoring audibly, loudly” was continuously misconstrued as a positive sign by society members at the event, who “assumed the snoring meant he was okay.” Dr Messer informed the court that snoring was in fact an indicator of unconsciousness and airway obstruction. Simon Gerry, Chief Executive of Newcastle University Students Union, said that before 2016 NUSU had put in place a policy on sensible drinking and conveyed “messages on potential fatalities, but not necessarily that if you drink this much you might die.”
Among students there was a strong consensus of awareness that initiation ceremonies were banned by the University, which has a “zero-tolerance” policy regarding them. However, the coroner ruled that more could be done to convey a “hard hitting” message, and “make frank reference to the risk of death” and “correlation between initiation events and heightened risk.”
Newcastle University has since implemented compulsory inductions for all first-year students about the risks associated with alcohol, but do not directly reference initiations. In their statement they said: “having listened to the evidence we will be reflecting carefully on all that we have learnt at the inquest and looking at whether there are areas where we can improve what we do.” Braiden stated they “believe it is a greater society problem”.
The coroner ultimately ruled that Ed Farmer “died due to the toxic effects from the consumption of a large amount of alcohol in a short time and in part because the effects of alcohol were unknown.”
In releasing the report coroner’s expectation of the intention to involve parties in “what hopefully will be a local and national effort” and engage the University in a “commitment to the eradication of what has been called in this hearing as a tradition”. The hope is to change binge-drinking culture and raise awareness in Ed’s memory so that “no family has to endure what the Farmer family have endured.”