Why did Pravin Varughese not use SIU’s ‘Steer Clear’ designated driver program that fateful Wednesday night?

February 19, 2014

A lesson to be learned from this tragedy, even as questions linger.

By Deepak Chitnis

Deepak ChitnisWASHINGTON, DC: The search for Pravin Varughese came to a tragic end when the 19 year-old Southern Illinois University sophomore’s body was found in a wooded area less than three miles away from his college’s campus, on Tuesday. But several questions still linger with regards to the circumstances regarding Varughese’s untimely demise, and a troubling but necessary discussion has to take place about the simple fact that this whole incident could have, and should have, been preventable.

Social media has seen an outpouring of support for Varughese, with several #RIPPravin hashtags appearing on Twitter. SIU tweeted that they are “deeply saddened to share the news of [his] passing,” and Facebook statuses have popped up across the country to offer condolences for Varughese’s death last week.

RELATED STORY: SIU student Pravin Varughese found dead after missing for six days

Not much is known about exactly what happened on the night of Wednesday, February 12, when Varughese went missing. What is known is that he was at a party on West College Street in Carbondale, Illinois, not far from the SIU campus, and was last spotted there around 11:00 PM. He then tweeted at 11:06 PM and 11:17 PM, saying “99% of the time I have no idea whats [sic] going on” and “Bloody knuckles…guess I was in a fight #backdown,” respectively.

Because this was a college party, it’s fair to assume alcohol was present, although it’s difficult to surmise if Varughese had any and, if so, how much. Although police have indicated that alcohol could have played a part in Varughese’s death, it should be noted that his tweets are reasonably well-written – anyone who’s gotten a truly drunk text message knows what they look like, and these tweets don’t fit that profile.

The last known communication Varughese had with the outside world was with a friend, as yet unidentified, who said Varughese called him around 12:30 AM Thursdaymorning sounding out of breath, and indicated that he may have possibly been in some kind of fight. That would match up with what the tweet from just over an hour ago said, but Varughese’s sister Priya, who eventually reported him missing that same day, later said he could just as easily have fallen or run into some glass to cause the bloody knuckles.

RELATED STORY: Pravin Varughese went to a party, got into a fight, disappeared: now $15,000 reward to find him

Tuesday’s press conference with Carbondale police indicated that Varughese’s death was not being considered a homicide, and that Varughese may have wandered too far from his townhouse in a drunken stupor after leaving the party, gotten offered a ride by an unidentified person (who voluntarily came forward to police on Monday and has been cooperative with the investigation), and was dropped off somewhere after supposedly being too drunk to indicate where he lives or should be dropped off.

This is where an ethical question comes into play: if you offer a ride to someone who’s drunk, regardless of if you’re the person’s friend or not, is it not your responsibility to make sure the person gets home safely? If you don’t offer this person a ride, that’s another matter altogether (and, in all fairness, not offering a visibly drunk person a ride in your car after midnight could be considered understandable), but in making the decision to help somebody out, you have to see that through to the end.

Varughese’s body was found in a wooded area behind a shopping center, with preliminary reports indicating he froze to death in the cruel February Illinois weather, and God only knows what could have driven this young man to find solace in the woods rather than call a cab or stay walking on a sidewalk. Did his phone run out of battery? Did he think there was a shortcut back home through the woods? Was he deliberately left in the woods for some reason, which only this person who gave him a ride knows?

And what is SIU’s responsibility here? As a recent college graduate, I remember going through orientation during my first week as a freshman, and one of the first things my orientation aides made me do was program my college’s “Steer Clear” program’s number into my cell phone.

Steer Clear is essentially a campus-wide designated driver, and exists for the sole reason of driving people who can’t drive themselves. A quick Google search shows that SIU has a “Night Safety Transit” program, but that it closes at midnight on Wednesdays (on Thursday through Saturday nights, which are traditionally when the most drinking occurs on college campuses, they operate until 3:00 AM). So Pravin could have called them right after he left the party between 11:00 PM and 11:45 PM (they stop accepting calls 15 minutes before closing), but for some reason, he chose not to.

I don’t mean to use Varughese’s tragic death to point fingers at people. At the end of the day, a young man’s life was cut short, and that is an unacceptable tragedy. I can only imagine what his family and friends, not to mention the SIU and Carbondale communities, must be going through.

But as a 23 year-old Indian American who went to college in the US, I want to shed as much light as I can on this to prevent it from happening in the future. I’ve been to those Wednesday night parties, I know people who have been too drunk to find their way home. And, thankfully, they’ve always found their way back. What happened to Varughese can be prevented, and hopefully will be for the future.

Was Varughese with friends that night, or did he come to and leave the party on his own? Was he not trying to go home at all, but meet up with other friends at another party and got lost on the way? Did he really get into a fight, and did that altercation somehow lead to his eventual fate? Or perhaps all this speculation is missing, and there was something deeper inside Varughese that no one, least of all myself, could have known about?

R.I.P. Pravin Varughese. Hopefully your passing will be a cautionary tale to others, and your death will not have been in vain. Our thoughts and prayers are with you.

(Deepak Chitnis is a Staff Writer at The American Bazaar.)

To contact the author, email to deepakchitnis@americanbazaaronline.com

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