It's been five years since Nolan Burch, a freshman at West Virginia University, was unable to respond to that plea as he lay on a board at the Kappa Sigma house where he had participated in a hazing event held by unsanctioned fraternity that included chugging a bottle of bourbon. A day later, the 18-year-old was taken off life support, and his organs donated to four other individuals – one of whom is now a WVU student.
MORGANTOWN - “Nolan, breathe for me, buddy.”
It’s been five years since Nolan Burch, a freshman at West Virginia University, was unable to respond to that plea as he lay on a board at the Kappa Sigma house where he had participated in a hazing event held by unsanctioned fraternity that included chugging a bottle of bourbon. A day later, the 18-year-old was taken off life support, and his organs donated to four other individuals – one of whom is now a WVU student.
Those November days, however, sparked the university, in cooperation with the Burch family and concerned alumni, to more aggressively combat a culture of hazing, alcohol and the myriad of behaviors that endanger students.
Research shows that each year for the last six decades, there has been at least one fatality from fraternity hazing, and Congress is considering legislation that would require universities to post incidents of hazing on their campuses or by their organizations.
West Virginia University intends to be a leader in fighting hazing, and other unsafe behavior, and the Burch family has partnered with and praised the University for its efforts.
“Since 2014, our University has worked to create awareness and improve student safety,” President Gordon Gee said in a letter sent today (Nov. 14) to the WVU community. “We have reformed Fraternity and Sorority Life and pursued a fundamental reset of our University’s culture — urging students to work smart and play smart.
“Ultimately, we all bear responsibility for protecting each other. Perhaps the most heartbreaking aspect of Nolan’s death is that prompt medical attention could well have saved him. That is why we are spreading the word: No one should fear the consequences of calling for help,” Gee said.
Titled “Would You?”, the safety campaign asks questions such as, “Would you help those in need? If someone were left unconscious due to an alcohol and hazing incident, would you call 911? If someone were being harassed on a night out, would you intervene or call someone to help? If someone were struggling in a class and you had the ability to help, would you?”
The campaign launched Wednesday night (Nov. 13) with the premiere of the documentary “Breathe, Nolan, Breathe,” which chronicles the events of that night five years ago, and draws attention to the many simple acts that could have changed the outcome.
“Somebody asked me if there was a point that night where Nolan could have been saved,” says Joshua Dower, the emergency doctor who treated him that night. “The answer is, ‘yes.’”
“Would You?" will focus on anti-hazing, medical amnesty laws and bystander intervention resources to better equip students to help in critical and potentially life-threatening situations.
“If somebody’s hurting somebody, that’s not a brotherhood, that’s not a sisterhood, that’s somebody hurting somebody,” Kim Burch, Nolan’s mother, says in the documentary. “Just get somebody help if they need it. That’s basically what our goal is … to educate others and not have another Nolan.”
The Burches, who have joined with several other families in a national organization to combat hazing, acknowledge it’s not always easy to repeat their story time and again.
At the same time, as Nolan’s father, TJ Burch, views it, “We love talking about Nolan, and all of it is about saving a life.”
The documentary is the brainchild of Daniel E. Catullo III, CEO of City Drive Studios, an award-winning filmmaker who attended WVU. Catullo joined Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity as a student and remains active in the national organization.
“When I saw the Dateline episode, I felt compelled to step up and do something about this,” Catullo said, referring to the NBC news program on hazing issues that featured the Burch case among others. “Being a former WVU student and having a close relationship with the University, I couldn’t not use my connections and abilities to try to stop this from happening again.
“What makes this particular story so heartbreaking is that it easily could have been avoided if someone called for help,” Catullo said. “It’s my mission to ensure that this never happens again, and we help create an environment where we all watch after each other.”
WVU hopes that “Would You?” can serve as a model for other universities as they also combat the issues involved.
“Would you accept the responsibility for saving a life? Would you help someone in need?” Gee asked in his letter. “I believe all Mountaineers would say yes. Accountability to each other is one of our core values. And by saying yes, we will pay the highest tribute to Nolan’s memory — preventing such a loss from devastating other families and friends.”