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The new scrutiny: schools and hazing

A New Jersey prosecutor has sent a chill through college deans’ offices nationwide by bringing criminal charges against two administrators over the alcohol-related death of a freshman.

The way Mercer County, N.J., prosecutor Joseph Bocchini Jr. sees it, the case over a Rider University fraternity initiation puts administrators on notice that their roles will be scrutinized for criminal implications.

“To the colleges in this state, and colleges nationally, it sends a clear message that there is a culpability involved in the ingestion of alcoholic beverages on college campuses,” Bocchini said in announcing the indictments on Aug. 3.

“Rider University is involved in this today, but it could have been any college or university across the United States,” he continued.

Lawyers believe it is the first time college administrators have been charged criminally in a hazing incident.

But Bocchini has plenty on the line as well. Some defense attorneys say conviction will be difficult to obtain unless the two administrators — Dean of Students Anthony Campbell and Director of Greek Life Ada Badgley — have some previously unknown connection to the death.

A Mercer County grand jury charged the two administrators and three members of the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity — president Michael Torney, pledgemaster Dominic Olsen and house manager Adriano DiDonato — with aggravated hazing under N.J.S.A. 2C:40-3b. They “knowingly or recklessly organized, promoted, facilitated or engaged in conduct” that resulted in serious bodily injury, the indictment alleged.

The offense is a fourth-degree crime carrying a maximum penalty of 18 months in jail and a $10,000 fine.

The charges stem from a fraternity initiation at the Phi Kappa Tau house at the Lawrenceville, N.J., university, which included a series of events such as scavenger hunts in New York City or Philadelphia, and push-up and sit-up routines in the mud in the woods. On the night of March 28, the 14 pledges engaged in drinking events, prosecutors say. In some cases, pledges each consumed an entire bottle of liquor in an hour. Two pledges, Gary DeVercelly and William Williams, were found unconscious, but no one at the party rendered assistance until parts of DeVercelly’s body turned blue, according to the family’s lawyer, Douglas Fierberg of Bode & Grenier in Washington, D.C.

Williams recovered, but DeVercelly lapsed into a coma and was taken off life support two days later, at his family’s request, says Fierberg, who represents hazing victims and their families in civil litigation. An autopsy showed that DeVercelly had a blood-alcohol concentration of .426 percent, five times the legal limit for drunken driving. DeVercelly had consumed as much as three-quarters of a bottle of vodka, according to Fierberg.

Torney and Olson had attended the pledge party, and DiDonato was in another part of the fraternity house while the binge drinking was under way, says DiDonato’s attorney, Paul Norris of Stark & Stark in Princeton, N.J.

But Campbell, 51, and Badgley, 31, did not attend the party. Bocchini has not publicly articulated a basis for charging the two administrators. But he said the grand jury was given an investigative charge, rather than targeted one; prosecutors presented the evidence and left it up to the grand jury to decide who should be charged.

Fierberg says he is monitoring the criminal case and the DeVercelly family hasn’t decided whether to sue.

It is not uncommon for administrators to be charged civilly in hazing cases, but some defense attorneys say criminally charging Campbell and Badgley seems like a stretch.

Campbell’s attorney, Haddon Heights, N.J., solo Rocco Cipparone Jr., issued a statement saying that the indictment was “spartan in its language and contains no reference to any alleged factual underpinnings of the charge against Dean Campbell.”

Adds criminal defense lawyer Alan Zegas, who does not represent any parties in the case: “Simply because the dean of students was unsuccessful in preventing a tragic event from occurring doesn’t render him criminally liable. It seems like his conduct is being looked at in an unfairly extreme way,” says Zegas.

A person is guilty of hazing, a disorderly persons offense, if he or she “knowingly or recklessly organizes, promotes, facilitates or engages in any conduct, other than competitive athletic events, which places or may place another person in danger of bodily injury,” N.J.S.A. 2C:40-3b says.

A person is guilty of aggravated hazing if he or she commits such an act and the result is a serious bodily injury to another person. Zegas, who heads a firm in Chatham, N.J., adds that the hazing statute did not seem to apply to Campbell and Badgley.

“Where the statute is stretched to its outer limits to make criminal what is otherwise a negligent act, it goes too far. It seems like the statute, as it applies to the dean, unless there are facts I’m not aware of, is being used in a way that is more appropriate for civil action,” Zegas says.

But the administrators might be guilty if they knew of a pattern of violations by Phi Kappa Tau and could foresee the student’s death, but did nothing to stop it, says Zegas.

Rider has no reason to think Campbell or Badgley had any knowledge or involvement in the pledging activity that led to DeVercelly’s death, and it does not believe prosecutors have any such information, says Jonathan Meer, vice president for university advancement. Campbell and Badgley remain employees in good standing, he adds.

After the criminal charges were filed against the five, Rider dissolved its chapter of Phi Kappa Tau.

Earlier, after DeVercelly’s death, Rider commissioned a panel, the Presidential Task Force on Alcohol, Personal Responsibility and Student Life, to suggest ways to reduce alcohol abuse.

The commission recommended on June 19 that the school prohibit social events with alcohol in residence halls and Greek houses; emphasize, through sanctions, that behaviors designed for rapid and excessive alcohol consumption are not tolerated; require stronger fines and parental notification for alcohol policy violations; establish a Good Samaritan policy that encourages students to seek medical help for peers who are under the influence of alcohol; and strengthen the role of and compensation to Greek house managers.

College administrators around the country are watching the Rider administrators’ case with concern, according to higher education lawyers.

“For people who are not particularly well-compensated for a very difficult job of trying to herd rambunctious young adolescents, the thought of criminal penalties being imposed really would give individuals second thoughts about their careers,” says Sheldon Steinbach, a lawyer with Dow Lohnes in Washington, D.C., who represents colleges.

Although 44 states have statutes that make hazing a crime or a disorderly persons offense, charges are brought only rarely in such cases, and penalties are usually not severe, says Hank Nuwer, the author of three books on hazing and a journalism professor at Franklin College in Franklin, Ind.

College administrators’ hands often are tied when trying to police fraternities because of pressure from alumni to maintain drinking rituals as “valued traditions,” says Nuwer.

And colleges pay attention to Greek alumni because they tend to be more active and give more money to their alma mater than other alumni, says Fierberg, the lawyer for the dead student’s family.

But those who dismiss the criminal charges may be acting in haste, says Fierberg.

From viewing Rider’s Web site, Freiberg says, he has determined that residential advisers in the school’s dormitories are subject to greater scrutiny than their counterparts, fraternity house managers. And the school has a large staff in its residential life office, while Badgley is the only employee overseeing fraternity affairs, Freiberg says.

“There are a lot of ways to get to recklessness. I can easily foresee circumstances where university officers knowingly disregard risk to their student population and are placing students at risk of injury or death. And I believe the criminal law should apply to everyone equally,” he says.

The case could put the history of Greek life at Rider on trial, Nuwer says.

Rider has made headlines before for hazing activities, In 1993, the college disciplined nine students in connection with an incident where pledges were made to portray stereotyped black characters.

Campbell, who did not return a call seeking comment, pleaded not guilty Thursday before Mercer County Superior Court Judge Andrew Smithson.

Badgley had taken a leave of absence and could not be reached. Her attorney, David Laigaie, chair of the white-collar crime section at Dilworth Paxson in Philadelphia, was on vacation and could not be reached for comment.

DiDonato pleaded not guilty last Wednesday. Olsen’s attorney, Timothy Donohue of Arleo and Donohue in West Orange, N.J., did not return a call seeking comment. The name of Torney’s attorney could not be obtained and a message left at the Torney home was not returned.

By Hank Nuwer

Hank Nuwer is the Indiana-based author of Broken Pledges: The Deadly Rite of Hazing, High School Hazing, Wrongs of Passage and The Hazing Reader. He has written articles or columns on hazing for the Sunday Times of India, Toronto Globe & Mail, Harper's Magazine, Orlando Sentinel, The Chronicle of Higher Education and the New York Times Sunday Magazine. His new book is Hazing: Destroying Young Lives from Indiana University Press.

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