Making the unprecedented announcement this month that two Rider University administrators were among five individuals indicted on hazing charges in connection with the March drinking death of a freshman fraternity pledge, the county prosecutor in New Jersey didn’t shy away from addressing the chilling implications for college officials across the country. On the contrary, Mercer County's Joseph L. Bocchini was explicit on that issue in his comments to reporters: “To the colleges in this state, and colleges nationally, it sends a clear message that there is culpability involved in the ingestion of alcoholic beverages on college campuses,” Bocchini had said. “Rider University is involved in this today, but it could have been any college or university across the United States.”
But on Tuesday, a judge approved the prosecution’s motion to dismiss charges against the two Rider administrators, Ada Badgley, the director of Greek life, and Anthony Campbell, dean of students. With a footnote indicating that there is no evidence to suggest that either of the administrators were on campus for the fraternity’s “Big Little Night,” nor that they were aware the event was occurring, the prosecution cited “insufficient evidence” as the reason for dismissing the charges.
“[T]here is insufficient evidence to establish, beyond a reasonable doubt, that either of the named individuals knowingly or recklessly organized, promoted, facilitated or engaged in conduct which resulted in serious bodily injury to Gary DeVercelly and William Williams," according to the motion to dismiss. Both pledges were hospitalized after the March 28 fraternity event with alcohol poisoning; DeVercelly, whose blood alcohol level was measured at 0.426, died March 30. Aggravated hazing charges against three students are still pending.
“He and I were always very confident that ultimately he would be exonerated,” Rocco C. Cipparone, Jr., a New Jersey-based lawyer, said of his client, Campbell, the dean of students. “It really is a slippery slope. You can look at this and say, ‘Dean Campbell was home, asleep in his bed, unaware of this event that was taking place, unaware of the conduct that was taking place and he ended up indicted for something like vicarious liability. What’s the distinction between that and a dean waking up and saying, ‘Did a date rape occur in the dorm and did we do enough to prevent it?’ ”
The case has been closely watched in higher education circles, where college leaders have been largely critical of what is believed to be the first attempt to extend criminal responsibility for hazing to college administrators. But they have also arguably been more proactive of late in beefing up their own colleges' anti-hazing policies and protocols. When asked to reconcile Bocchini's bold words about sending a message with Tuesday's dismissals, Mercer County's assistant prosecutor, Angelo Onofri, detailed the impact of the now-dismissed charges. “He does believe that the indictments did begin to sensitize campuses about the dangers associated with this, and also it seems that there’s beginning to be a dialogue, an additional dialogue, about what college campuses need to do to prevent this in the future," Onofri said.
“What they did is they played with someone’s life in order to get a message across, and I have utter sympathy for the administrators who had to go through this,” said Brett A. Sokolow, president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management. He agreed that many colleges have redoubled their anti-hazing actions -- and described the efforts as a positive outgrowth of a largely negative course of events. “The prosecutor might well answer that hopefully by messing with someone’s life we’ve saved others, but there has to be some trust in the higher education community that we’re experts on prevention," Sokolow said.
Badgley and Campbell, who have been on paid administrative leave since August 13, are returning to their offices this week -- Badgley having returned by lunchtime on Tuesday, according to her Philadelphia-based lawyer, David M. Laigaie. Both Laigaie and Cipparone praised the conscientiousness of the prosecution, which maintained Tuesday that the decision to seek dismissal centered on the difference in the burden of proof required for a grand jury to indict (probable cause) versus what’s needed to criminally prosecute (beyond a reasonable doubt). Cipparone described the decision to indict in the first place as driven by a "groundswell" within the grand jury itself, and backed up the prosecution’s assertion that it did not guide the grand jury's decision to indict the two administrators.
Meanwhile, Douglas E. Fierberg, a Washington-based lawyer hired by the DeVercelly family, said that while he didn’t want to second guess the prosecutors' judgment because he has not had access to the evidence they’ve been able to review, nor was he prepared to disregard the grand jury’s indictment. “We do know that a group of New Jersey residents reviewed all the evidence and believed there was probable cause to prosecute. We’re not yet prepared to say their decision was wrong,” he said.
Fierberg added that the family is still considering future actions, and that nothing has been settled regarding the prospect of civil litigation against Rider or its officials. Back at Rider, administrators are preparing for classes to resume next week -- this year with new policies including the prohibition of social events with alcohol in residence halls and Greek houses. Alcohol can be served only to students of legal age at registered events in licensed and supervised campus venues, and a new "Good Samaritan" policy encourages students to seek help for ill students without fear of campus repercussions.