The day after Gary died, there were two Riders.
One Rider was the caring, supportive institution we already knew. This was a school which let students make their own decisions, rather than forcing morality down their throats. At Rider, students made friends with teachers, deans, and administrators. We knew each other by name. Certainly, a few ambulances or police cars would make an appearance every so often, but on the whole, you’d be proud to invite your high school friends here. Most importantly, for a populace recovering from a terrible and needless tragedy, Rider was exactly how it should have been. There were hundreds of community members marching in unison to remember a lost friend. There were heated discussions over the proper course of action going forward. There was, above all, a real and tangible reaction. Rider is a vibrant society of individuals, and that is how it was.
The other Rider was the stereotypical, inaccurate, and ultimately devastating image carelessly crafted by the outside media, bolstered by the either reckless or ignorant actions and prejudices of a Mercer County grand jury. We became a one-hit wonder, the punch line to a thousand jokes across the country, in a heartbeat. Rider was no longer a school like any other school; where TCNJ was the former “school where that kid died,” there we were. Not only that, but our community leaders were vilified. Add the indictments handed down by the powers that be, and our role was sealed as not only the successor to TCNJ’s trophy, but as the first school in the country to have its administration blamed for a hazing death, a fact which was certainly not lost in the news.
Case in point: The Star-Ledger’s Aug. 4, 2007 article titled “Rider officials, students indicted in hazing death.” The article itself is quite dry, but what caught my eye was the photo array. I suppose that was the idea. Small, grainy pictures of four of the defendants placed right next to a huge, high-resolution shot of Gary holding a baby.
A large photo of Gary, holding a baby. I suppose I should just be grateful he never had a photo op with the Pope. I don’t mean to say that Gary was a bad kid; on the contrary, it seems as if everyone who knew him agreed that he was an admirable young man. What the newspaper unquestionably intended was to reinforce the image of a hero done wrong by unmitigated villainy. This is only one example; the news vans assembled like hyenas along the campus mall after Gary’s death were proof enough that the entire gallery of news outlets was certainly not on our side.
While I am relieved that the charges against Dean of Students Anthony Campbell and director of Greek life Ada Badgley were dropped, it seems that the Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph Bocchini is taking the coward’s way out. Let me explain.
What Bocchini has done is use the grand jury’s indictment to drag our administrators’ reputations through the mud, grandstanding in front of a national audience, and then issue a terse “never mind.” They deserved their day in court. They deserved the chance to prove their worth to this school, which in my estimation is beyond measure.
This is an institution which is strong enough to let its constituents make their own decisions and face the consequences. All of us, top to bottom, need only to carry on as the mature people that we are, and I have no doubt that Rider can bounce back from this as a better place to be.