April 3, 2007

Rider and TCNJ share common bond
By Leo D. Rommel

Now comes the tough part: Deciding what to do next.

The University is in the beginning stages of developing a set of recommendations to
address the issues Gary DeVercelly’s death has brought to the surface, plans that may set a national example. The school has already invited an expert on binge drinking to join them to provide advice on best practices.

The consideration of tweaking policies after an alcohol-related death is nothing new for local colleges. Rider’s misfortune follows the death, just over a year ago, of The College of New Jersey (TCNJ) freshman John Fiocco, Jr., who mysteriously disappeared and was later found dead following a night of heavy drinking. To date, authorities have been unable to confirm what role exactly alcohol played in Fiocco’s death.

However, contrary to popular belief, not many new policies have been enacted at TCNJ since the incident. Instead, the college has stood by its original policies regarding both alcohol consumption and public safety, said school Director of Communication and Media Relations Matt Golden.

“John Fiocco’s death was tragic and had a significant impact on our campus,” Golden said. “But I can honestly say that no policies were changed as a result of John dying.”

According to Golden, two policies were changed with other objectives in mind. The first was implemented in December when the school banned alcohol consumption during Senior Week, a time when seniors customarily return to the dorms where they lived as freshmen for alcohol-laden get-togethers. Although many students speculated that the logic behind that decision stemmed directly from Fiocco’s death, it actually originated from a campus alcohol summit three months before Fiocco disappeared.

Senior week was cancelled this year on March 19 because only 7 percent of the senior class signed up, according to a March 28 article in the College’s student newspaper, The Signal.

The second change was a 1-year pilot project that required students to use swipe-cards for entry into the dormitories 24 hours per day. This strategy was examined three years ago, but college officials speculated whether or not the school’s lack of technological capabilities would greatly restrict student traffic between buildings during the day. Therefore, the school required swipe-card access during evening and night hours only.

The rule changed when reporters sneaked into Fiocco’s dormitory to question and cross-examine neighboring students.

“Those students asked us to require swipe access 24 hours per day, in order to keep the press out,” said Golden. “We did so and, in the process, learned that our technological capabilities had improved, allowing us to do this without creating a major impediment to student traffic.”

Nonetheless, according to sophomore international studies major Max Marshall, many students felt there was a sudden increase in vigilance by Campus Police. In addition to random bag searches – especially duffel bags carried by students in the wee hours of the night – campus police also distributed more parking tickets, made students show their I.D. cards and their room keys before entering residence halls and, at times, pulled over cars with more than one student in occupancy.

“I can’t say for certain whether individual police officers were, in fact, more vigilant in the months following John’s death,” said Golden. “People are affected differently, and some may have sharpened their focus on student safety issues as a result.”

Students rebelled against the new treatment by protesting outside one of the residence
halls last Oct. 17 by playing ginger-ale pong, placing empty glass soda bottles in their backpack to clank off one another and by walking around with red plastic cups in their hands filled with water or juice, Marshall said. Moreover, 1,000 students signed a petition stating, “the sudden increase in excessive vigilance by the administration and Campus Police be reduced.”

School administration had no part in the excessive vigilance of Campus Police, Golden said.

“I think the Campus Police needed to find a scapegoat,” said Marshall, the originator of the petition. “I think the media and the public were expecting them to change something, and they reacted irrationally.”

Campus police officers at TCNJ are college employees, but are fully armed and trained officers of the law with the same authority as municipal police. Members of Rider’s Department of Public Safety are also employees of the school but do not have municipal authority. Still, that will not stop the University from making sure what happened last week does not happen again.

“We will go ahead and review process and policies,” said Director of Rider Public Safety Vickie Weaver. “We are part of the University; we’re not separate from the University. As part of the University, we will give input and we’ll look to see as a community what we’ll review [and] make decisions on what we do in the future.”

Although Rider’s tragedy is similar to TCNJ’s in terms of impact and the presence of alcohol, it’s too early to tell if Rider will implement changes to any of its policies, said Golden.

“Obviously alcohol caused Gary’s death, but it isn’t yet known whether the excessive drinking was of his own volition or was coerced,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean [Rider’s] current policies are lacking in any way. That can’t be determined until all the facts are known.”

Investigations at both schools are ongoing.

Additional reporting by Jeff Frankel