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USA Today: In this corner, parents. In that corner, universities. Touch gloves.

Alcohol-saturated ‘fun’ on campus can be lethal
PBy Robert Davis, USA TODAY
As students head to the nation’s college campuses, relishing their new independence, criminal prosecutions in the deaths of two young men are a sober reminder of how quickly alcohol-fueled “fun” can spin out of control.

Charges were filed this month against students and administrators linked to the recent fire death of a 19-year-old sophomore at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill., and the alcohol poisoning of a 18-year-old freshman at Rider University in Trenton, N.J.

USA TODAY last year examined 620 deaths of four-year college and university students dating back to Jan. 1, 2000, and found that alcohol was often a factor in several types of student deaths, ranging from fires to pranks to falls. Freshmen, often living away from home for the first time, are disproportionately vulnerable.

“Young people often come to college with ongoing alcohol habits,” says Tim McDonough of the American Council on Education, which represents college officials. Colleges “are trying to educate and enforce and break habits already in place. These issues are tough, but college institutions have been working on them for a long time.”

A prank goes tragically out of control

In Peoria, four college students face felony arson charges in the Aug. 12 death of their friend, Sheridan “Danny” Dahlquist. Three of the students — Nicholas Mentgen, 21, Ryan Johnson, 22, and David Crady, 19 — were Dahlquist’s teammates on the Bradley University soccer team. The fourth student, Daniel Cox, 20, was visiting from Illinois Central College in East Peoria.

Illinois State Attorney Kevin Lyons says that after a night of drinking, Dahlquist went to bed in a house just off campus. As a joke, prosecutors say his friends slid two Roman candles — fireworks that shoot fireballs — under the bedroom door.

While as many as 16 balls of fire, each burning about 1,500 degrees, shot into the room, Lyons says, the men ran downstairs, hoping to see their friend emerge screaming in outrage at the prank.

As they stood in front of the house, however, all they saw was the bedroom window glow orange. They were prevented by the intense heat from rescuing Dahlquist, and a girl who was with them called 911, Lyons says. By the time help arrived, Dahlquist was dead of smoke inhalation.

Cox, Crady, Mentgen and Nicholas are charged with aggravated arson and possession of an explosive or incendiary device. Lyons says he “takes no delight in plucking four young men from their futures and putting them in a trial, but that is what fairness is about. … I’m in the business of holding people accountable.”

He says he could have charged the men with felony murder because the arson resulted in death, but he chose not to because the men didn’t mean to kill their friend.

Jennifer Nelson, a graduate assistant at Seton Hall University’s Campus Ministry who started a fire-safety program at the New Jersey school, says students don’t understand how fast flames can spread.

Students who violate Seton safety rules, such as burning a candle in a room or failing to evacuate when a fire alarm sounds, are fined $250, put on probation and forced to take the fire-safety class Nelson started with the South Orange Fire Department.

Some students roll their eyes when they arrive at the class, she says. Then she makes them read the USA TODAY stories and look at the faces on USATODAY.com of the students who have died in fires since 2000.

Hazing death leads to indictments

In Trenton, three Rider University students and two administrators face criminal hazing charges after the March 30 death of freshman Gary DeVercelly. A grand jury found that a traditional fraternity ritual left DeVercelly dead from alcohol poisoning.

According to a release by Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph Bocchini Jr., DeVercelly and the pledges who participated in a March 28 fraternity initiation drank several shots and, in some cases, an entire bottle of alcohol in less than an hour. Most of the pledges were too young to drink legally, he said. DeVercelly died two days later.

Anthony Campbell, 51, dean of students, and Ada Badgley, 31, director of Greek Life, face aggravated hazing charges even though the university says they were not present at the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity.

Douglas Fierberg, a Washington, D.C., attorney who specializes in hazing law and is representing the DeVercelly family, says one of the indicted students was a university employee. Adriano DiDonato, 22, also charged with hazing and named by prosecutors as the residence director/house master of Phi Kappa Tau, was paid by the university and reports to Badgley, Fierberg says.

The grand jury also indicted the fraternity’s pledge master, Dominic Olsen, 21, and its president Michael Tourney, 21.

Campbell and Badgley are on paid leave from the university, which formed a task force to look at alcohol issues on campus. McDonough says that many other colleges are reviewing safety measures. “Whenever there is an incident, no matter how small, they go back and revisit what they are doing,” he says. “People are dedicated to keeping these campuses safe and healthy learning environments.”

Jeffrey Parsons, a professor of psychology at New York’s Hunter College who focuses on drug and alcohol addiction, says some students go wild and act crazy as they enjoy freedoms allowed by parents and universities, who are pointing fingers at each other.

Parents assume the colleges are enforcing drinking rules, he says, while school officials assume that parents have taught their children to behave responsibly.

Students feel free to take huge risks, he says. “They’re not in an environment where somebody is patrolling their behavior.”

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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