how one night changed Greek life in Rider – The Rider News
By Olivia Nicoletti
In 2007, a seemingly normal spring day on campus turned into a whirlwind of events resulting in loss, lawsuits, and learning for the Rider community.
Gary DeVercelly Jr., an 18-year-old Phi Kappa Tau (PKT) member, died of alcohol poisoning on March 30 at the hands of his fraternity brothers after performing a large/small hazing ritual in the Greek house from campus.
The night before
In Long Beach, Calif., Gary and Julie DeVercelly were awakened in the middle of the night on March 29 by police pounding on their door telling them their son was in the hospital in critical condition. They were told to immediately call the Helene Fuld Medical Center in Trenton.
“After Gary [Sr.] hung up, we booked four one-way tickets on the first flight of [Los Angeles International Airport] for [Philadelphia International Airport]. Gary, I and our two youngest children flew across the country on what was the longest flight of our lives,” Julie DeVercelly said. “We had to change planes in Phoenix and called the hospital for an update. Gary’s prognosis went from a 50/50 chance of survival to no hope at all.
At this point, the couple had no idea what could have caused their son to lie almost lifeless and alone in a hospital bed.
When the grueling hours of travel ended, the DeVercelly family arrived at the hospital. Julie DeVercelly said: ‘We were escorted by security to Gary’s hospital room through a special entrance to shield us from the media who were all over the hospital. The realization that whatever happened to our son was not just an accident was beginning to creep in.
The brotherhood ritual was ultimately revealed to involve more than just brotherly bonds. Older members forced newer members to drink an excessive amount of vodka on the night of March 29. Freshman Gary DeVercelly Jr. drank most of a bottle during the “Big-Little Night” initiation ritual.
The day of sorrow
Once the DeVercellys reached the trauma floor, former President Rider Mordachi Rozanski and former Dean of Students Anthony Campbell were waiting outside their son’s room. Julie DeVercelly recalls Rozanski and Campbell reaching out to shake their hands as they rushed into the hospital room.
“I will never forget walking into Gary’s hospital room and seeing him on life support. These images will never go away,” said Julie DeVercelly.
On March 30, while surrounded by his parents, brother and sister, Gary Jr. was taken off life support and pronounced dead.
“I felt bewildered and overwhelmed with emotions. Unless you’ve been through this, you have no idea. There are no words for the pain,” Julie DeVercelly said.
The rider’s reaction
The day after his death, Rider held a memorial service for Gary Jr. According to Julie DeVercelly, the chapel where the service was held was completely filled with over 500 people.
A plaque has since been placed in front of the Lake House, the former home of Phi Kappa Tau, in honor of Gary Jr. and to remind students of the dangers of hazing.
Pam Brown, retired professor from the Department of
Communication, journalism and the media at Rider, were present during the period of grief and disbelief after his death.
“I’ve seen more than one tragic death of a student, and it always shakes you — it always shakes the place,” Brown said. “Rider is a very small and close place. This was one of those cases where you wish you could undo it. You want that not to happen.
After Gary Jr.’s death, Rider revoked the PKT chapter.
Gary and Julie DeVercelly successfully sued Rider University and two administrators after their son’s death. In the lawsuit settlement, announced in 2019, Rider banned the consumption of alcohol at all Greek social events in residence halls and Greek houses on campus; tougher penalties for hazing; and instituted a “good Samaritan” policy, which encourages students to see a doctor without fear of punishment.
Alcohol rules inevitably tightened as Rider struggled to regain his reputation following the death of Gary DeVercelly Jr.
Being underage was no longer the only root of the alcohol problem on campus. A new policy was put in place stating that students aged 21 and over could consume alcohol in their living space, but it was prohibited anywhere beyond these premises.
The new policy also prohibited beer balls, kegs or any other containers of alcohol for group consumption.
Today, anyone who consumes alcohol excessively, regardless of age, will be reprimanded; this can include fines, parental notification, suspension or university dismissal, according to the 2020 Fire and Safety Annual Report.
With Rider’s four sororities housed on campus and three off-campus fraternities, hazing — specifically geared toward drinking — is still something the university continues to monitor.
In recent years, a fraternity by the name of Kappa Alpha Psi had consistently abused the rules against hazing.
As of 2018, the fraternity had three allegations against them, including physical beatings and food and sleep deprivation, according to a college hazing statistics report. They are currently suspended for three years, with a possible return date of October 15, 2024.
Mike Langeveld, a junior finance student, is the president of Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEp). In recent history, this off-campus fraternity has no allegations of hazing, according to the university’s hazing report.
“We have to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself,” Langeveld said. “I watched the documentary [“We Don’t Haze”] which was posted recently, and after seeing this I could really see that the [fraternity] traditions are getting more and more dangerous, really. And that kind of stuff just evolves into something where, in Gary’s case, someone died. It’s important to make sure your members are safe and that you treat them with respect because, in the end, it can go very wrong.
However, hazing allegations have been made against two of the four campus sororities, Phi Sigma Sigma in 2019 and Delta Phi Epsilon in 2020.
Phi Sigma Sigma was found not responsible for the intimidation and seniority charges. However, Delta Phi President Epsilon took responsibility for the chapter’s misdeeds, including sleep deprivation and bullying of new members. Delta Phi Epsilon has been placed on a correction plan for a year, according to Rider’s hazing report.
Julie DeVercelly addressed the work to eliminate hazing at Rider and said, “The many changes to Greek life and especially the fraternities, the ongoing education and awareness of hazing, and the implementation and l Implementing these changes have all made Rider a much safer campus. ”
As for students who may feel in a position prone to hazing, Julie DeVercelly discourages hazing and motivates victims to: “Talk and say something. If someone asks you or someone you know to do something humiliating, demeaning, abusive or dangerous, speak up and say something. Chances are you are not alone. Walk away and seek help before it’s too late. I know it’s hard to do. Speaking up and exposing yourself is scary. The possibility of not being “accepted” is difficult. However, hazing in any form is not acceptable and should not be tolerated or accepted. Who knows, you might save someone’s life, maybe even your own.
The ongoing effort to stop the hazing
The DeVercelly family continued to work to raise awareness of the dangers of hazing.
On March 31, 2007, Rozanski established the Cali Scholarship to honor a senior student who best exemplifies the characteristics of Gary DeVercelly Jr..
“Cali” was a nickname given to Gary DeVercelly by fellow student Rider Ross Boehm when they met during freshman orientation, and according to Julie DeVercelly the name stuck.
The DeVercellys met with lawmakers in Washington to advocate for federal legislation to combat hazing and advocated in 2015 for a federal hazing awareness bill. Their work culminated in the creation of the Reach (Report and Educate About Campus Hazing) Act, which when passed would require universities to provide evidence-based hazing prevention education, publish hazing policy, and to include statistics on hazing crimes in their annual security. reports, according to Gary DeVercelly Sr.
According to Julie DeVercelly, the idea is to have all colleges and universities publicly report incidents of hazing as part of their federally mandated annual crime reports.
“Rider is a much safer campus due to changes made after Gary’s death. The REACH Act includes many of these changes. If they had been in place when Gary left for college, he would be alive today,” Julie DeVercelly said.
Gary and Julie DeVercelly both serve on the board of the Clery Center, which helps colleges and universities regulate and implement effective safety standards.
They partnered with the Clery Center and stophazing.org to develop an educational documentary, “We Don’t Haze” for universities and schools to use to teach hazing.
According to Gary DeVercelly Sr., “You can watch the movie for free. In it, victims share personal stories about their experiences with hazing, viewers learn what hazing entails, why it’s a problem, and how they can achieve unity and team building goals with positive alternatives to hazing. There are also free, downloadable worksheets as accompanying pieces for the film.
Gary and Julie DeVercelly continue to speak at high schools featuring this film and are in the process of creating a six-part documentary mini-series titled “Protect the House” that will reveal what’s going on with fraternities and how they really affect their members. families and communities of members.
The hazing didn’t just affect Gary DeVercelly Jr.; it uprooted the lives of his parents, and they continue to do their part in raising those who might fall victim to hazing.
Julie DeVercelly said her message today to the Rider community is: “It’s been 15 years since Gary died following a fraternity hazing ritual. Thankfully Rider didn’t have a another hazing tragedy. Help us prevent this from happening again at Rider. Continue to be the role model for other higher education institutions on how to stop hazing. Let’s continue to work together to stop hazing .