Two administrators at Rider University were among five people charged Friday with aggravated hazing in connection with the alcohol poisoning of two fraternity pledges, one of whom died. Several college lawyers said that they could not think of comparable indictments of administrators.
Freshman Gary DeVercelly, 18, of Long Beach, Calif., was hospitalized after a night of heavy drinking in which he is said to have finished at least three-quarters of a bottle of hard alcohol with a blood alcohol level of .426, more than five times New Jersey's legal limit of .08. He died two days later on March 30. Another fraternity pledge was also hospitalized with alcohol poisoning from the same night of drinking.
Though it's not unusual for fellow students to be indicted in hazing deaths, prosecutors made the unexpected move of filing the same charges against Anthony Campbell, Rider's dean of students, and Ada Badgley, director of Greek life, as they did against three members of the university's chapter of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity. All five are accused of having “knowingly or recklessly organized, promoted, facilitated or engaged in conduct which resulted in serious bodily injury” on the Lawrenceville, N.J. campus.
Joseph L. Bocchini, the Mercer County prosecutor, announced the charges at a press conference Friday. “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. Rider University is involved in this today, but it could have been any college or university across the United States.”
Aggravated hazing is a fourth degree felony that can come with a sentence of as much as 18 months of jail time and a $10,000 fine.
Bocchini did not outline the specific basis for indicting university administrators. But a lawyer for DeVercelly told The Trenton Times that university officials were negligent by holding fraternities to a less strict standard than dormitories with regard to alcohol abuse.
Experts on higher education law were stunned by the indictments of administrators.
“This is really unheard of,” said Brett A. Sokolow, president of the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management, who provides legal advice to four colleges. “There’s no evidence that the administrators did anything that was actually hazing.” But New Jersey’s hazing law is “very broadly written,” he said, and “the prosecutor is trying to make an example of these two administrators by applying the law at its broadest.”
Generally, the indictment of student affairs professionals for any job-related function is rare. But last year, the dean of students at Notre Dame College of Ohio (who has since left the position) was indicted on criminal charges of failing to report felonies. A jury acquitted Patricia O'Toole in February. O'Toole said that she wasn't sure that the charges she heard were accurate and she noted that she had pledged confidentiality to the students who told her that they had been sexually assaulted.
Rider, on its part, was “surprised” by the charges against Campbell and Badgley, Earl Rommel, director of public relations, said. The administrators will stay in their jobs until there is reason for the university to take action. “We need to learn more before we consider any personnel action,” he said. “We do recognize due process.”
He said the university does “not believe the government has any evidence that suggests that university administrators were involved in the pledging activities,” adding that Rider has “no other information about why the charges were brought against our administrators.” The administrators did not respond to messages.
Sheldon E. Steinbach, senior counsel in the postsecondary education practice at Washington firm Dow Lohnes, said the university “did everything they could” to reasonably prevent hazing and binge drinking, including requiring members of Greek organizations and athletic teams to attend a session discouraging hazing.
Nonetheless, as Campbell told the Times of Trenton in March, Rider was “not immune to the things that happen to 18- to 22-year-olds.”
“Schools do their best in education and informing the likely transgressors,” Steinbach said. “Anyone who’s in touch with reality knows that things like drinking are going to go on regardless of how much education there is to discourage it.... As courts have said again and again, college students are to be adults who have personal liability for their own actions.”
Short of restoring the strict parietal rules that have disappeared from most campuses in the last half century, education “is considered to be the most appropriate mechanism institutions have” to prevent hazing. “And anyone who supports in loco parentis is clearly someone who ... wants to preclude young men and women from learning on their own, even if they make mistakes, which they will.”
The night of drinking that led to DeVercelly's death was one of several involving heavy drinking and strenuous physical activity that was part of the six-week process of pledging Phi Kappa Tau, the prosecutor’s office said in a statement. The pledge process also included an early-morning scavenger hunt in New York or Philadelphia and a night of push-ups and sit-ups in the muddy woods near the campus. Though participation in the events was not required of pledges, older fraternity members did want pledges to participate. The university has since dissolved the fraternity.
Sokolow and Steinbach both drew parallels between Bocchini’s charges and the behavior of Mike Nifong, the former Durham County, N.C., the now former district attorney accused of mishandling charges of sexual assault filed against three Duke University lacrosse players last year.
Steinbach said that “the actions of the Mercer County prosecutor have the flavoring of another rogue prosecutor … and suggest an element of prosecutorial grandstanding that needs to be recognized immediately by the entire Trenton community.”
Sokolow used another metaphor to describe the "outrageousness" of the hazing charges. “It would be like the prosecutor charging the company that made the vodka that the student drank.”