N.J. Hazing Case Alerts School Officials to Liability for Campus Safety

By Chris Newmarker | August 26, 2007

College administrators across the nation are likely to pay close attention to the indictment of two Rider University officials in a case involving a student who died after drinking during a suspected hazing.

The case could trigger changes in how schools deal with campus safety issues, including student drinking, experts say, because prosecutors are holding administrators more accountable for hazing.

“I think every dean of students around the country is examining their liability insurance and following the case closely, because it’s so peculiar,” said Norm Pollard, dean of students at Alfred University in New York.

Earlier this month, a grand jury indicted two Rider administrators and three Rider students with aggravated hazing in connection with the drinking death of a fraternity pledge.

The pledge, freshman Gary DeVercelly Jr., 18, of Long Beach, Calif., had a blood-alcohol level of 0.426 percent when he was pronounced dead March 30, one day after a special party at the on-campus fraternity house, authorities said.

At the party, pledges drank large quantities of hard liquor with fraternity brothers, some of the pledges consuming entire bottles in less than an hour, prosecutors said.

A grand jury indicted Anthony Campbell, 52, Rider’s dean of students; Ada Badgley, 31, the university’s director of Greek life; Adriano DiDonato, 22, a student who was also the residence director and house master of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house; Dominic Olsen, 21, pledge master of Spring 2007 Phi Kappa Tau pledge class; and Michael J. Torney, 21, the chapter president.

Prosecutor Joseph Bocchini Jr. has declined to elaborate on why the two administrators are facing charges even though they weren’t present at the party, but he noted that facilitating is included in the criminal code that defines hazing.

If convicted, Campbell, Badgley and the three students each face a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000. All five have pleaded not guilty.

“I’m not aware of any set of facts and circumstances that could remotely serve as a basis for a conviction of a crime,” said Campbell’s lawyer, Rocco Cipparone Jr.

Experts familiar with college hazing cases wonder whether Bocchini’s case against the administrators will stick. But even if the charges are dropped, they say the threat of indictments will heighten fears among college administrators.

Peter Lake, director of Stetson University’s Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy, said school administrators are likely to take a much harder stance on student drinking, and some might even take steps to completely disassociate their colleges from Greek organizations and athletic teams where hazing and other offenses might occur.

“I think it will push people to more extreme solutions. I think it’s going to interfere with the best intentions of administrators,” Lake said.

Alfred University banned fraternities and sororities in 2002 after a hazing-related death, Pollard said.

“That death prompted our university to end Greek life,” he said.

Hank Nuwer, an associate professor of journalism at Franklin College in Franklin, Ind., said the Rider case points to the need for administrators to create more specific policies on hazing.

“It’s making deans and administrators who ordinarily wouldn’t be thinking about this issue thinking about it intently,” said Nuwer, who’s studied campus hazing for years. “These administrators haven’t come up with a really good policy, other than trying to absolve themselves with legal responsibility.”

At the University of Massachusetts-Amherst, student affairs Vice Chancellor Michael Gargano said he meets with local police once a week about cases involving students. He also said incoming freshmen are required to take an online course in alcohol abuse.

“A death on a college campus is something every senior administrator hopes and prays isn’t going to happen on their campus. Hoping and praying is one thing. But you need effective programming too,” Gargano said.

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