From Sadness to Progress: Tragic incident leads to change for the better

By Katie Zeck

Gary DeVercelly was an 18-year-old student from Long Beach, Calif., who died as a result of excessive drinking on March 30, 2007. Today marks the five-year anniversary of his death.
Following the tragic death of DeVercelly, Rider’s alcohol policy went from a “three-strike policy” to the current two-tiered system that includes the Good Samaritan policy, stronger sanctions such as higher fines and parental notification for every level of a violation, mandatory alcohol education classes and additional penalties if the original sanctions are not carried out.
The new policy has decreased the overall amount of dangerous drinking on campus, said Debbie Stasolla, associate vice president for Planning.
“We began by reviewing our polices, programs and existing services to see what we could do to further reduce dangerous and binge drinking on both our campuses,” Stasolla said. “We really wanted to stress that it is a shared responsibility that we have as an institution to consider the choices we make and how they affect our personal lives and those around us.”
DeVercelly was rushing Phi Kappa Tau fraternity in March of 2007.
In December of that year, the DeVercelly family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the University and also charged Phi Kappa Tau president Mike Torney with aggravated hazing.
Torney pled guilty and received three years of probation, 100 hours of community service and alcohol counseling. The University eventually reached a settlement with the DeVercelly family in which Rider was cleared of any wrongdoing and was not deemed liable for the student’s death.
Amid the lawsuits and funeral, President Mordechai Rozanski established a presidential task force composed of administration, faculty and students with its main focus being the alcohol policy, personal responsibility and student life, said Stasolla, the then-vice-chair of the task force.
According to Stasolla, the task force made a total of 19 recommendations for proposed changes to the university’s policies against alcohol consumption and binge drinking. Most of these recommendations were implemented by the start of the 2007-2008 academic year.
In regard to the higher fines and extensive sanctions, Stasolla believes they are very effective in discouraging high-risk drinking.
“As far as instituting parental notifications, that stemmed from the idea of partnering with parents on the alcohol education of our students,” said Stasolla. “We’re trying to create an alcohol policy that will serve as a greater deterrent and to help students understand that we don’t tolerate risky, dangerous forms of drinking.”
Stasolla also noted that this deterrence was reflected in the University’s annual Clery report — a yearly report that is required by all college campuses and provides crime statistics for the prior three years.
According to Rider’s 2010 Security and Fire Safety Report, disciplinary actions for liquor law violations on the Lawrenceville campus decreased 36 percent, from 420 reported violations in 2009 to 269 in 2010.
“We see our Clery statistics and the drop of alcohol violations as an encouraging sign that the violations have reduced over time,” Stasolla said. “I think that’s an indication of a change, where [the student body] puts less of an emphasis on binge drinking.”
Head of Public Safety Vickie Weaver agrees.
“The policy is now broader in scope and detail, resulting in students having a better understanding of what is and is not permitted,” Weaver said. “More students recognize that they can, and should, seek immediate medical help for an intoxicated person.  We are also seeing an increase in students seeking wellness activities and housing.”
Current students have mixed feelings on the alcohol policy and the changes that were made five years ago.
“I think the policy is too strict,” said sophomore Samantha Lukas. “I feel the new policy makes it more unsafe because it compels students to drink off campus.”
Other students were pleased with the new policy, saying it is fair for all students.
“I don’t understand why people claim that drinking is part of the college experience,” said 2011 graduate Amy Kaufman. “In my four years at Rider, I never drank and I don’t feel like I missed out on anything. College is primarily for learning and growing up. I think the alcohol policy is right in its sanctions.”
The Good Samaritan policy, as stated in The Source, is an obligation of the Rider community to contact Public Safety or a Residence Life staff member when they feel an intoxicated person may be in need of assistance. No intoxicated person seeking help for another will be subject to sanctions by the alcohol policy. These individuals will, however, be required to attend educational or counseling initiatives.
“[The Good Samaritan policy] encourages students to make the right decision if someone is medically compromised because of excess alcohol or drug use,” Stasolla said. “It is something we never had before.”
Before the new changes were made, the policy was based on a “three strike policy,” Stasolla said. According to The Source from 2006-2007, consequences of the alcohol violation ranged from levels one to five and gaining three or more violations within any two-year period would result in, minimally, removal from residency.
The new alcohol policy contains a tiered system in which levels are incorporated into the sanctions for alcohol policy violations, which then provided a distinction between non-abusive and abusive behaviors and associated disciplinary action.
Student Resident Advisors (RAs) deal directly with the new policy, enforcing it within their buildings daily.
“I’d say this campus has done a complete 180 since Gary’s death,” said Poyda RA Brittany Gaffey. “The alcohol policy changes since then are much more strict, but reasonable. April is Alcohol Awareness Month. I’m sure the Resident Advisors will be having prevention programs and/or information sessions in the coming month. As RAs, we’re simply the mediators between the students and The Source.”
Additional alterations were made to the alcohol policy in 2010 as a part of the settlement agreement with the DeVercelly family.
“There were some additional things we needed to do to either further clarify or emphasize in the policy,” said Stasolla. “We made it clearer that the Good Samaritan policy applied to hazing situations. We also emphasized that students supplying alcohol to underage students will be issued sanctions including loss of housing and dismissal from the University.”
Alcohol policies of nearby colleges and universities are based on similar guidelines, but are not as specific and comprehensive as Rider’s policy.
At The College of New Jersey, the student handbook states that “a student who violates the Alcohol and Other Drugs Policy is subject to local, state and federal sanctions, up to and including removal from College assigned housing, expulsion from the College, and referral for prosecution.” The handbook did not include a detailed description of a system that is followed when an alcohol violation arises. Rutgers University also stated on its website that its police department refers to federal and state consequences for underage or excessive drinking, selling to minors and drinking and driving. According to the Monmouth University student handbook, “any alcohol or illegal substances found on Monmouth University’s premises in violation of such laws will be confiscated and destroyed.”
Other adjustments to the alcohol policy were made in the spring of 2010, coinciding with the trend of mixing alcohol and energy drinks. The administration added alcoholic energy drinks to the list of items that cannot be possessed by any student, even those of legal drinking age.
“We don’t prohibit all alcohol, but we want to deal with dangerous drinking,” said Dean of Students Anthony Campbell. “We already prohibit beer funnels, beer pong tables and things like that. We prohibited Four Loko and the other energy drinks with alcohol in them and put them in the same category as the beer bongs, kegs and such.”
With everything now said and done, Stasolla is proud of the policy the task force produced and the improvements that have been seen on campus since.
“The colleagues that I worked with at the time were really committed to making this work, despite the heavy duty schedule,” Stasolla said. “You don’t see the kinds of parties that you may have seen in the past.”
Weaver finds that the insight the students have received following the changes is what has made a difference on campus.
“I feel our students have a better understanding of the policy and realize that Public Safety’s primary focus is the safety and well-being of our students,” she said. “Our students have been very good about contacting Public Safety when they are aware of a person who may need our assistance and possible medical attention.”
Most of all, Stasolla is pleased with the greater sense of responsibility students have taken on following DeVercelly’s death.
“We’ve seen the Student Government Association (SGA) establish the Safe Ride program and it monitors that every year to help provide an avenue for students who find themselves off campus whether they’ve been drinking or feel unsafe for other reasons can then get a safe ride back to campus,” she said. “That was a recommendation from SGA who, in the context of all that was being done, took on this project themselves. Its those kinds of initiatives which give more meaning to the responsibility we have as an institution to maintain a safe campus.”
Tell us what you think about the alcohol policy. Go to The Rider News facebook page to take the poll.

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