Leadership After Loss

Gary and Julie DeVercelly stand at their son Gary DeVercelly Jr.’s grave in the film We Don’t Haze! produced by the Clery Center. Its East Coast premiere will be Oct. 19 at Rider.
Gary and Julie DeVercelly stand at their son Gary DeVercelly Jr.’s grave in the film We Don’t Haze! produced by the Clery Center. Its East Coast premiere will be Oct. 18 at Rider.

DeVercelly family returning to campus to participate in anti-hazing events

By Thomas Regan

More than eight years after losing their son, Gary DeVercelly Jr., in a hazing incident, Gary and Julie DeVercelly will make their first public appearance at Rider since the tragedy.

Their visit on Oct. 18 will bring the East Coast premiere of We Don’t Haze!, a documentary film that aims to educate people on the dangers of hazing.

The film was produced by the Clery Center, the foundation that fosters campus safety. Both Gary and Julie DeVercelly serve as members of the Board of Directors.

The event will feature three group screenings and panel discussions in the Cavalla Room. Greek Life will have its seminar at 3 p.m., varsity athletics at 7 p.m. and all other clubs and organizations at 9 p.m.

In conjunction with this event, the Student Government Association (SGA) Senate aides Megan Beres and Megan Kugelman have taken the initiative to make the month of October anti-hazing month at Rider. This initiative was inspired by the video, according to Kugelman.

“Unfortunately, [the DeVercellys] did have to experience taking a child off of life support, which no parent should ever have to do,” she said. “That’s why I think bringing them in is just going to bring even more light to this situation and I think that showing that video will really touch home. Because of that, Megan Beres and I have been working very hard on passing legislation to create the anti-hazing month of October.”

Although most hazing incidents grab headlines only when someone is badly injured or killed, SGA’s Organizational Affairs team leader Ruth Del Pino asserts that the DeVercellys will be able to provide students with a glimpse of what can be the end result of hazing.

“With the DeVercellys coming to campus, we can at least understand that where hazing starts, unfortunately losing a life can be the finish line,” Del Pino said. “So having them as a presence on our campus could be something to let us know that hazing is a problem, but if you’re doing small things that lead up to bigger things, then you should stop wherever you are and evaluate your organization.”

DeVercelly’s death followed an initiation involving alcohol in the Phi Kappa Tau house — Rider’s chapter is now disbanded — on March 29, 2007.

DeVercelly, from Long Beach, California, consumed a lethal amount of alcohol that night and was found unconscious after suffering cardiac arrest. He suffered brain damage, and his parents withdrew life support the next day.

The family filed a wrongful death lawsuit against the university; Ada Badgley, then-director of Greek Life; Cassie Iacovelli, former assistant dean of Campus Life; and Adriano DiDonato, former residence director and house director of the Phi Kappa Tau (PKT) fraternity house. The suit was settled in 2009 upon agreement that Rider would take preventative measures to ensure this would not happen again, as well as awarding the DeVercellys financial compensation.

SGA’s secretary, Jake Troy, is certain that Greek Life has made strides in eliminating the threat of hazing.

“I feel comfortable saying that within the Greek community, there isn’t [a hazing problem],” Troy said. “Purely because we’re a very open community about what is considered the pledging process — we don’t even like to call it that. I speak on behalf of Sigma Phi Epsilon when I say that all new members are immediately fully respected brothers as soon as they’re initiated.”

Despite the declaration that fraternities have cleaned up in recent years, the image of Zac Efron in Neighbors, downing alcohol and preparing to initiate his fraternity’s new pledges, who attempt to prove themselves through crude, dignity-destroying activities, is still synonymous with Greek life.

But it’s not just the Greeks who have a hazing issue, according to Dean of Students Anthony Campbell. MLB teams force rookies to dress up in ridiculous and flamboyant costumes during September call-ups, and that is glorified by the news and “designed to put people down.”

Part of the reason why Rider can safely say its campus has improved is because of the massive culture shift that overtook the university after the incident, according to Campbell.

“Obviously, if you have a death of a student, it has a major impact,” he said. “When Gary died, President [Mordechai] Rozanski created the president’s task force on alcohol and Greek Life and out of that came the updated alcohol policies. There were significant changes that we made to our Greek life, which includes having staff members live in the Greek houses and a standardized evaluation every year.”

However, the improvements to Rider’s hazing and alcohol abuse prevention programs have left many students complaining about the restrictions of the new policies. Underage students cannot socialize with a group of of-age friends who are drinking. There are penalties for those who are caught with shot glasses or beer pong tables in their dorm rooms.

The policies and methods extend beyond laying down the law. The university has worked to educate students through Rider’s training program, which it hopes will help prevent future tragedies.

“Every student on campus has participated in an orientation program called the DeVercelly program — we talk about alcohol, we talk about drugs, we talk about hazing,” Campbell said. “Every student who has gone through it has heard the name Gary DeVercelly and understands it.”

Yet, even with these best efforts, being completely hazing-free may not be achievable. According to SGA President Ryan Hopely, “The expectation that 100 percent of the time there won’t be any hazing is completely unrealistic.”

And despite Rider’s current ability to limit the number of hazing incidents, there have still been some occurrences. Most recently, members of the cross-country team were caught running naked around the outside track complex. This event has been taken care of, according to Campbell, with discipline from the code of conduct, as well as from Head Coach Bob Hamer.

“The people were sanctioned individually, and they were sanctioned as a team, too,” Campbell said.

John Modica, SGA’s vice president, believes that the DeVercellys will help to show students how important it is to avoid hazing incidents, but he also stresses that this is a step that everyone will have to take together.

“I think with bringing the DeVercellys back to campus, it’s supposed to remind us that Rider’s a community; that we’re supposed to value one another; that no one roams these halls as a stranger,” he said. “It’s a learning process for everyone.

“We need to go hand-in-hand in saying, ‘These things should not happen and here’s why.’ It’s not just about saying hazing is bad; it’s about saying hazing can be prevented because there are better ways to build friendship and build teams.”

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