Anti-hazing film aims to ‘create a culture change’

Julie and Gary DeVercelly Sr. speak about hazing policies for the first time at Rider since their son, Gary Jr., passed away.
Julie and Gary DeVercelly Sr. speak about hazing policies for the first time at Rider since their son, Gary Jr., passed away.

By Thomas Albano

In the Cavalla Room filled with varsity athletes, Gary DeVercelly Sr. was in the middle of wrapping up his final remarks about how to eliminate hazing. Hazing at Rider took the life of his son, Gary Jr., and this was the first time the DeVercellys had publicly appeared at Rider since his death in March 2007.

The father suddenly stopped speaking. The room was absolutely silent. He apologized for his momentary speechlessness. His wife, Julie, came up onto the stage and wrapped her arms around him as they closed out the session.

It was the second of three panel discussions and screenings of We Don’t Haze on Oct. 18. The film features interviews with hazing survivors and families of hazing victims. Each screening and discussion had a specific audience — Greek Life at 3 p.m., athletics at 7 p.m. and all other clubs and organizations at 9 p.m.

Matt Castorina, a senior history major and the president of Rider’s chapter of Sigma Phi Epsilon, said the approximately 17-minute documentary gave him a new look at the effects hazing can have on victims, as well as families and peers.

“Hearing it from someone who has lost a family member to it or experienced it, I think it makes a deeper meaning,” he said. “I think you get a better sense of why it is so wrong and why we can’t allow it to happen in our organization or on our campus.”

The goal of working with the Clery Center for Security on Campus and producing the documentary, according to the DeVercellys, is to focus on ways to replace hazing with other means of team building.

“The first thing we want to do is to raise awareness about hazing, especially the subtle forms,” Julie DeVercelly said. “The second thing is we want to create a culture change to give a clearer definition of hazing.”

Her husband added that the event also aimed to “give tools [students] can use to create change and make real traditions.”

Gary DeVercelly Jr. died after an event that took place in the Phi Kappa Tau (PKT) house. After being told to drink a whole bottle of vodka, he managed to drink a large portion of it quickly before suffering alcohol poisoning and passing out.

He was put on a couch and by the time someone called for help, it was too late. His parents took him off life support the next day, charges were pressed, Rider’s chapter of PKT was disbanded and the family filed a wrongful death lawsuit, which was settled in 2009.

According to Abigail Boyer, associate executive director of programs at the Clery Center, hazing is not considered a Clery Act reportable crime, but it can fall under other categories, such as aggravated assault.

“There are a number of campus safety issues and we wanted to create a resource that can be used for them,” Boyer said.

The premiere of We Don’t Haze on the Lawrenceville campus comes at a time when Rider finds itself in a media spotlight for an incident involving the men’s cross-country team. Members of the team gathered to run around the track naked before being stopped by Public Safety. While no ill intent was determined, it was deemed a hazing incident because it could have had  embarrassing and humiliating effects.

“We knew [the athletes] were all called there [to the film] because of whatever happened with the cross-country team,” said Lee Lipinski, a senior history major and catcher on the baseball team. “I think that was a big part of it, but I think it was also the announcement that October is Anti-Hazing Month.”

Lipinski also felt that the event could have done more to tailor each session to the audience present.

“I think it could’ve been better,” he said. “I think it could’ve been more focused toward sports-related stuff, too. We know that’s why we had the assembly — for the first part at least.

“I mean, I thought Gary’s parents were great. It took a lot for them to come out, and they had good ideas.”

Castorina, however, feels that despite what happened with the cross-country team, no serious incident is likely to occur at Rider today.

“I think our organizations all do a really good job of ensuring that’s not the culture we have,” he said. “I think one benefit of us being at a smaller school is that when we have a culture like that, it spreads a lot and everyone feels that ‘no one else does it, so we’re not going to be the outlying group that has hazing.’”

Melanie Hieronimus, a junior public relations major and the public relations vice president for Rider’s chapter of Alpha Xi Delta, agreed that Rider doesn’t have a hazing problem, but there is still work to do on a national level.

“Rider Greek Life doesn’t stand by hazing and doesn’t think that we should force people to do something that would make them uncomfortable to join our organizations,” Hieronimus said. “Nationally, I think things have gotten better than they were, but there’s definitely still work to be done to fix hazing.

“The screening and panel was a very emotional and touching program. I can only imagine how hard it was for the DeVercelly family to come back to campus, and I think we all appreciated them coming to talk to us about a serious problem.”

The DeVercellys said Rider has done a lot to build up its stance against hazing. Student Government Association (SGA) senate aide Megan Kugelman announced after the panel discussion that the SGA has passed anti-hazing legislation, recognizing the month of October as Anti-Hazing Month at Rider. The Westminster campus has its own anti-hazing bulletin board.

“Right now there’s Hazing Awareness Week and it does little,” Julie DeVercelly said. “Hazing is something that goes on without stop. In the last 15-20 years, it has become more lethal and it’s at a point where we need it to stop.”

Gary DeVercelly Sr. has praised Rider’s work against hazing and believes it has come a long way since the death of his son. He feels hazing is an “epidemic” on a national level, citing statistics in the video that show hazing can be seen everywhere from Greek Life organizations to athletics programs, and from club and intramural sport teams to honor societies.

“I suspect Rider is on the cutting edge of hazing awareness,” Gary DeVercelly said. “I believe this community was rocked [by Gary Jr.’s death]. It was not just to protect themselves.

“We’re not here, but from what we’ve seen, just to say [Rider’s hazing awareness has] improved is an underestimation.”

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