In 2007, a seemingly normal spring day on campus turned into a whirlwind of events leading to loss, lawsuits and learning for the Rider community.
Gary DeVercelly Jr., an 18-year-old member of Phi Kappa Tau (PKT), died of alcohol poisoning on March 30 at the hands of his fraternity brothers after performing a big/little hazing ritual in the Greek house on campus.
The night before
In Long Beach, California, Gary and Julie DeVercelly were awakened in the middle of the night on March 29 by the pounding of police at their door telling them that their son was at the hospital in critical condition. They were instructed to immediately call Helene Fuld Medical Center in Trenton.
“After Gary [Sr.] hung up we booked four one-way tickets on the first flight out of [Los Angeles International Airport] to [Philadelphia International Airport]. Gary and I and our two younger children flew across the country on what was the longest flight of our lives,” said Julie DeVercelly. “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 be lying almost lifeless and alone in a hospital bed.
When the grueling hours of travel came to an end, 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 protect us from the media that was all over the hospital. The realization that whatever happened to our son was not merely an accident was starting to sink in.”
The fraternity ritual was eventually revealed to entail more than just brotherly bonding. The older members forcefully made new members drink an excessive amount of vodka on the night of March 29. Gary DeVercelly Jr., a freshman, drank most of a bottle during the “Big-Little Night” initiation ritual.
The day of heartbreak
Once the DeVercelly’s reached the trauma floor, former Rider President Mordachi Rozanski and former Dean of Students Anthony Campbell were waiting outside their son’s room. Julie DeVercelly can remember 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. Those images will never go away,” Julie DeVercelly said.
On March 30, as he was surrounded by his parents, brother and sister, Gary Jr. was taken off life support and was pronounced dead.
“I felt discombobulated and overcome with emotions. Unless you’ve lived this, you have no idea. There are no words for the pain,” said Julie DeVercelly.
The day following his death, Rider held a memorial service for Gary Jr. According to Julie DeVercelly, the chapel where the service was held was completely packed with over 500 people.
A plaque has since been placed in front of the Lake House, the former home of Phi Kappa Tau, to honor Gary Jr. and to remind students of the dangers of hazing.
Pam Brown, a retired professor of the Department of
Communication, Journalism and Media at Rider, was present during the time of grief and disbelief after his death.
“I’ve seen more than one tragic death of a student, and it always shakes you up — it always shakes the place up,” Brown said. “Rider is a very small, close place. This was one of those instances where you wish you could undo it. You wish it didn’t happen.”
After Gary Jr.’s death, Rider revoked PKT’s 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 use of alcohol at all Greek social events in residence halls and Greek houses on campus; strengthened punishments for hazing; and instituted a “Good Samaritan” policy, which encourages students to seek medical help without fear of punishment.
The rules regarding alcohol inevitably tightened as Rider scrambled to recover its reputation after Gary DeVercelly Jr’s death.
Being underage was no longer the only root of the issue involving alcohol on campus. A new policy was put in place stating that students 21 and older could consume alcohol in their living area, but it was prohibited anywhere beyond those 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 Annual Security and Fire Safety Report.
With Rider’s four sororities housed on campus and three fraternities off-campus, 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 been one to continuously abuse the rules against hazing.
Since 2018, the fraternity had three allegations against them including physical beatings and food and sleep deprivation, according to a university hazing statistics report. They are currently on suspension for three years, with a possible return date of Oct. 15, 2024.
Mike Langeveld, a junior finance major, is the president of Sigma Phi Epsilon (SigEp). In recent history, this off-campus fraternity has zero allegations of hazing, according to the university hazing report.
“We need to make sure history doesn’t repeat itself,” Langeveld said. “I’ve watched the documentary [“We Don’t Haze”] that was recently posted, and after seeing that, I was able to really see that the [fraternity] traditions just become more and more dangerous, really. And that kind of just evolves into something where like, in Gary’s case, someone died. It’s important to stick to making sure that your members are safe and that you treat them with respect, because, in the end, it can turn out really bad.”
However, allegations of hazing were made against two out of the four sororities on campus, Phi Sigma Sigma in 2019 and Delta Phi Epsilon in 2020.
Phi Sigma Sigma was found not responsible for the accusations of bullying and seniority. However, Delta Phi Epsilon’s president took responsibility for the chapter’s wrongdoings including sleep deprivation and bullying toward new members. Delta Phi Epsilon was placed on a correction plan for one year, according to Rider’s hazing report.
Julie DeVercelly addressed the work toward eliminating hazing at Rider and said, “The numerous changes made to Greek Life and specifically fraternities, the ongoing education and awareness of hazing, and the implementation and enforcement of these changes have all made Rider a much safer campus.”
In regards to students who may feel they are in a position prone to hazing, Julie DeVercelly discourages hazing and motivates victims to, “Speak up and say something. If anyone requires you or someone you know to do something that is humiliating, degrading, abusive or endangering, speak up and say something. Chances are you are not alone. Walk away and get help before it’s too late. I know this is hard to do. To speak up and put yourself out there is scary. The possibility of not being ‘accepted’ is difficult. However, hazing in any form is not OK and should not be tolerated nor accepted. Who knows, you could be saving someone’s life, maybe even your own.”
The continuing effort to stop hazing
The DeVercelly family has continued to work toward spreading 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 Rider student Ross Boehm when they met at freshman orientation, and according to Julie DeVercelly, the name stuck.
The DeVercelly’s have met with lawmakers in Washington advocating for federal legislation to combat hazing and advocated in 2015 for a federal hazing awareness bill. Their work resulted in the creation of The Reach Act (Report and Educate About Campus Hazing), once passed, it would require universities to provide evidence-informed hazing prevention education, have a published policy on hazing and include hazing crime statistics in their annual security reports, according to Gary DeVercelly Sr.
The idea is to make all colleges and universities publicly report hazing incidents as part of their annual federally-mandated crime reports according to Julie DeVercelly.
“Rider is a much safer campus because of the changes made after Gary died. The REACH Act includes many of these changes. Had these been in place when Gary went away to college, he’d be alive today,” Julie DeVercelly said.
Both Gary and Julie DeVercelly hold a position on the Clery Center board, which helps colleges and universities regulate and implement effective safety standards.
They have 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 about hazing.
According to Gary DeVercelly Sr., “You can view the film 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 companion pieces for the film.”
Gary and Julie DeVercelly continue to speak at high schools showcasing this film and are in the process of creating a six-part mini-documentary series called “Protect the House” that will reveal what goes on with the fraternities and how they truly affect their members, member’s families and communities.
Hazing affected more than just Gary DeVercelly Jr.; it uprooted his parents’ lives, and they continue to do their part in educating those who may be subjected to hazing.
Julie DeVercelly said her message today to Rider’s community is: “It’s been 15 years since Gary died from a fraternity hazing ritual. Thankfully Rider has not had another hazing tragedy. Please help us to keep this from ever happening again at Rider. Continue to be the model for other higher education institutions to follow on how to stop hazing. Let’s continue to work together to stop hazing.”
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