Utah State University and the Sigma Nu fraternity adjacent campus are accused of projecting a "false image" to students interested in joining the chapter, according to a lawsuit filed Tuesday by the parents of deceased pledge Michael Starks.

George and Jane Starks, of Salt Lake City, are seeking an undisclosed amount of money to help them recoup medical and funeral costs, as well as general damages and money they believe their 18-year-old son was entitled to before his untimely alcohol-poisoning death last November.

The suit, filed in 1st District Court in Logan, says that Michael and his parents, along with other incoming students, were unaware of the "actual character" of Sigma Nu. Had they "known the sordid history" of the fraternity, they "would never have allowed their sons to pledge."

The suit also claims the university has a close relationship with the "Greek" community and encourages incoming students to get involved with it, even telling them that being a part of any one of the affiliated fraternities or sororities "will not only help you through college, but through life."

USU spokesman John DeVilbiss said sororities and fraternities that are still affiliated with the school have gone on without such problems. Calling such organizations "an asset to any institution," he said students belonging to the "Greek" system "often do better in school," stay through graduation and have a built-in support group that promotes a loyal association with the school.

"But that is easily overshadowed," he said. "This tragedy has overshadowed everything. We understand how hard it has been for the family but it has also been very hard for us."

While participating in a "capture," Michael Starks was bound with cords, taken to a different location, body painted and forced to drink alcohol in order to be admitted to the fraternity. His body was later found to contain more than four times the legal limit of alcohol. The lawsuit alleges that USU has for years been familiar with the "traditional events" associated with Rush Week.

"Michael Starks and his family took the bait and did indeed 'think Greek.' They never thought, however, that the Greek system at USU … were an uncontrolled, unsupervised, alcohol-driven school program where USU enrolled fraternity and sorority students were allowed, if not encouraged, to break the law year after year with the knowledge and consent of USU administration," the lawsuit states. It also states USU "negligently failed and refused to supervise, discipline or control" fraternity activities, including underage drinking and other illegal actions.

"Any suggestion that the university would knowingly encourage or allow such a thing is incorrect. The safety and well being of all of our students are a primary concern. We take issue, however, regarding the university's responsibility to students participating in off-campus, non-university activities," DeVilbiss said.

DeVilbiss said the school has been sued in the past, but not for anything "quite like this." He said the school affiliates with more than 200 organizations, but few, if any, have staff guidance or oversight, which is not required for off-campus endeavors.

Logan Police charged Sigma Nu and its sister organization Chi Omega, and 12 USU students with hazing. But prosecutors have dismissed all but five who served minimal jail time for supplying the alcohol or obstructing justice by hiding the bottle. DeVilbiss said USU's judicial officer has conducted reviews of the each students involved in Michael Starks' death, resulting in various undisclosed consequences.

George Starks told the Deseret News last week that the results did little to send a strong message to young people about hazing.

"It is tragically disappointing to back off of the prosecution rather than to drive home the position," he said. "We are not willing to be forceful in the prosecution of the problem."

Sigma Nu and Chi Omega, which disbanded their Logan chapters, reached undisclosed out-of-court settlements with the Starks family.

e-mail: wleonard@desnews.com