Ten years later, couple who lost son to hazing work for change

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When Gary and Julie DeVercelly saw news coverage of the indictments in the death of Penn State fraternity pledge Tim Piazza, they were transported back 10 years ago to when their son died at Rider University in New Jersey under similar circumstances.

“Seeing this … was extremely painful because our son is never coming back,” said Julie DeVercelly, a high school math teacher from Long Beach, Calif. “Now another family is going to be walking in our shoes. The fact that this is still going on is outrageous.”

The DeVercellys have been pushing for change in federal law to require colleges to include information on hazing in their annual crime reports.

She and her husband, Gary, hope the grand jury presentment in Piazza’s case will garner support. In announcing charges against 18 members of Beta Theta Pi on May 5, Centre County District Attorney Stacy Parks Miller released a detailed timeline on how Piazza, a 19-year-old sophomore from Lebanon, N.J., languished for nearly 12 hours after falling down the stairs on a booze-fueled pledge night where hazing has been alleged. And she has video surveillance taken from the fraternity house to back it up.

“The death of Tim Piazza may be something that is a catalyst for change so we don’t see this happen to other students,” said Alison Kiss, executive director of the Clery Center, a national group that advocates for better reporting of campus crime.

Rep. Patrick Meehan, a Republican from Delaware County, said Thursday that he will offer legislation this week that would require colleges to report hazing under the federal Clery campus crime reporting law and mandate that universities provide education on hazing to students annually. The effort also would establish a federal definition of hazing; now most states prohibit hazing but definitions differ.

In a national 2008 study of more than 11,000 college students, 55 percent of those involved in clubs, teams, and organizations said they experienced hazing, and in 95 percent of the cases, students did not report it.

Meehan, who is working with the Clery Center on the legislative effort, said he’s also contemplating ways to make national fraternities more accountable in promoting safe pledge activities.

Parks Miller also wants to have impact on a larger stage. She said the grand jury has directed her to prepare a detailed report on Piazza’s death to present to the state legislature, Penn State, and other entities. On The Today Show last week, she hinted that the report could reveal more culpability in Piazza’s death.

“The grand jury is going to …issue a report and recommendations about who knew what and when, and when that report comes out, I think it’s going to answer all those questions,” she said.

The Piazza case, which has received international attention, has the potential to drive change, perhaps similar to the 1986 murder and rape of Lehigh University student Jeanne Clery in her dorm room. Clery’s grief-stricken parents aggressively lobbied for a campus-crime reporting law. The Clery Act, passed in 1990, requires colleges and universities to disclose crimes reported on or near their campuses and warn students about potential threats.

The DeVercellys had been hopeful that their son’s death would lead to widespread change. But his death faded from the news cycle and similar tragedies have repeated.

“I don’t think any real change is going to come until universities are held responsible and the national fraternities are held responsible,” said Gary DeVercelly, a salesman. “Some high-ranking person, a college president, is going to have to go down — and go down hard — before the universities wake up and smell the coffee.”

He had harsher words for national fraternities.

“They talk a good game,” he said. “But it really is the epitome of the good old boy’s club and there’s a lot of drinking and misbehaving.”

The DeVercellys’ son, Gary Jr., an avid baseball player, told his mother he wanted to join Phi Kappa Tau because it stood for leadership and would be good for his resumé. She asked him about hazing. He told her not to worry — hazing is against the law.

The night of his death, Gary Jr. attended “Big Little” night. He and his sponsoring big brother had to split a bottle of vodka, his father recalled. The sponsor had a test the next day so he  took only a couple of shots. Gary Jr. had to drink the rest, he said.

When he passed out, fraternity members put him on a couch; likewise, at Beta Theta Pi, Piazza’s frat brothers put him on a couch after he fell down stairs. At Rider, some members wanted to call for help but were told not to, DeVercelly said, also similar to Piazza’s case.

“So he was basically put on a futon and left to die,” DeVercelly said.

The freshman  died of alcohol poisoning the next day.

His death got international attention and saw several university officials charged with aggravated hazing, though the charges were later dropped. But the death did leave a lasting impact on Rider. The university banned alcohol in dorms and at on-campus fraternity and sorority events, strengthened sanctions for alcohol violations, and agreed to tell parents about incidents.

“They learned a hard lesson,” DeVercelly said.

Three years ago, the DeVercellys joined the Clery Center board, determined to fuel more change. They have returned to Rider’s Lawrenceville campus to talk about hazing and their son’s death and presented an anti-hazing film they helped develop with the Clery Center. They have also lobbied in Washington.

“We’re really trying hard to create effective, meaningful change,” Julie DeVercelly said.

Douglas E. Fierberg, the Washington lawyer who represented the DeVercellys, said that if Penn State really wants to spur change, it should publish statistics on Greek organizations that violate regulations, install live-in managers at fraternities, require all socials to be alcohol-free, and prohibit pledging if a fraternity wants university recognition.

“The reality is that kids have been dying every year from hazing,” he said. “Universities have known that, and the vast majority, including Penn State, have decided against making fundamental, necessary changes.”

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