Tragedy at Rider sparks campus fears

Drinking may seem like a rite of passage in college, where keg stands and jello shots sometimes seem as commonplace as textbooks and cramming for exams. Underage drinking is preached against, yet is often treated with a wink and a nod; parents, officials and students know it happens but often seem content to look the other way.

This blissful ignorance was shattered last spring when Gary DeVercelly Jr., a freshman at Rider University, died after excessive drinking at the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house where he was pledging. DeVercelly allegedly drank almost an entire bottle of vodka and had a blood alcohol level of 0.426 percent, well above New Jersey’s legal limit of .08.

Now, the debate over underage drinking continues, as three Rider students and two officials were indicted on aggravated hazing charges in the beginning of August, although recently there has been speculation that the officials’ charges may be dropped.

College administrators have almost never been implicated in the death of a student due to excessive drinking, thus creating a potentially frightening precedent. Of the three students charged, one was the house manager of the fraternity, one the chapter president and one the Spring 2007 pledge master.

Naturally, members of Greek life here at the College are concerned over the negative implications the case brings with it.

“This is a bad representation of Greek life and gives Greek organizations an even worse reputation because of all the negative publicity,” junior criminal justice major Matt Johnston, who is a member of Alpha Psi Chi, said.

Other fraternity members echoed this sentiment, expressing nervousness over closer scrutiny by College officials as a consequence of the Rider indictments and the pervasive “Animal House” stereotype of Greek life.

Andrew Spada, senior business administration marketing major and president of Sigma Pi, said in an e-mail, “We have a very responsible Greek system here on the campus, but I am still worried that rather than observing and understanding the situation, the campus will have a knee-jerk reaction and we will see excessive police involvement as we did last fall.”

Spada continued, “It isn’t an issue of ‘cracking down’ because there really isn’t anything to ‘crack down’ on. The events that occurred at Rider University were the cause of a flawed Greek system and a lack of proper monitoring by campus life.”

Michael Levy, senior accounting major and president of the Phi Alpha Delta fraternity, agreed that the tragedy at Rider was an isolated incident, one not indicative of or representative of Greek life here at the College.

“The truth of the matter is that Greek Life instills positive values in its members …” Levy said in an e-mail.

“I feel that the charges to administrators and those not directly involved are meant to make administrations across the country examine their students and organizations (not just Greeks) more carefully, and unfortunately, critically,” Levy said.

Greeks aren’t the only ones feeling the heat. Many freshmen expressed worry over the possibility of Campus Police using stronger enforcement to stop underage drinking and expressed reluctance to comment on the issue or have their name appear in print.

Although the College will not release drinking statistics according to year, Jessica Kerley, sophomore elementary education/math, science and technology major and community advisor did say that the percentage of College students who do drink is less than those who abstain from alcohol use. However, she acknowledged that it is often freshmen who have more problems with excessive drinking, possibly due to their inexperience with heavy drinking.

“Freshmen haven’t experienced drinking yet and they don’t know their limits,” Kerley said. “(Community advisors) have the College alcohol policy and we do our best to keep it enforced. Kids do experiment, though.”

Some students suggested that the school do more to prevent excessive or binge drinking, rather than attempting the quixotic feat of completely eradicating underage drinking.

“It is a fool’s errand to attempt to eliminate the drinking on this campus. Rather, the campus as a whole should take a pro-active approach to educating the community about the dangers of binge drinking and the risks involved,” Spada said.

Freshman music education major David Ortiz agreed. “I don’t see much of a problem with (underage drinking) if people stay controlled,” he said. “The problem is people don’t know their limits.”