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Parents sue Rider over son's death

The suit cites poor supervision during a fraternity party.

TRENTON - The parents of a Rider University student who died after a suspected hazing incident last spring have sued the school, claiming it did not adequately supervise the fraternity house where excessive drinking occurred.

A wrongful death lawsuit was filed yesterday by lawyers for Gary and Julie DeVercelly, whose son Gary DeVercelly Jr. died in March after a party at the on-campus Phi Kappa Tau house. Authorities say pledges were urged to consume large quantities of alcohol.

The suit in Superior Court seeks an unspecified amount of money from Rider as well as the Ohio-based Phi Kappa Tau and four members of the fraternity's Rider chapter.

DeVercelly, a freshman from Long Beach, Calif., was pronounced dead on March 30 at a Trenton hospital, two days after the party. He had a blood-alcohol content of 0.426 percent - more than five times New Jersey's legal definition of drunken driving, according to autopsy results released by prosecutors.

The suit claims that Rider's fraternity and sorority houses, which are on campus, received less oversight than the residence halls, and that administrators were or should have been aware of hazing and alcohol dangers associated with Greek organizations.

"Greek organizations present unique dangers, real dangers, to students on campus. And Rider specifically chose to manage them with less supervision and to give them control over their own activities despite the risk," said Douglas Fierberg, a lawyer in Washington representing the DeVercellys.

Debbie Stasolla, a Rider administrator who helps run the university task force started after DeVercelly's death to address alcohol issues, declined to directly comment on the lawsuit.

But Stasolla said that the university had done a great deal to improve safety, including implementing tougher sanctions for alcohol violations and prohibiting alcohol at all social events in residence halls or Greek houses.

"That work has been part of our ongoing effort to make Rider a stronger and safer learning community for our students," Stasolla said.

Steve Hartman, the national chief executive of Phi Kappa Tau, also would not discuss the lawsuit, but said the fraternity has proper policies and procedures in place for its chapters.

"But I do believe that, if things weren't clear in our organization and in fraternities in general, I think this situation has raised the bar that this does and can happen," Hartman said.

The lawsuit claims fraternity members urged DeVercelly to drink a bottle of vodka, then delayed seeking medical attention for him when he became ill.

The Mercer County prosecutor charged three fraternity members, as well as Rider's dean of students and its director of Greek life, with aggravated hazing.

Charges were dropped against the school officials because prosecutors said that there was not enough evidence.

Charges were not dropped against the fraternity members, but two gained admittance into a court-monitored program that allows them to keep their records clean and avoid prison.

A trial is possible for the remaining student, who turned down a plea deal.

Since DeVercelly's death, Rider's Phi Kappa Tau chapter has been disbanded and the university has hired a non-student to live in each of the campus' six Greek houses and supervise them, Stasolla said.

In a statement, the DeVercellys said they hoped the lawsuit would "cast light" on what they described as the mismanagement of fraternities by Rider and other universities across the country.

"It is our hope that the lawsuit and the changes we wish to make will help prevent the death of other students," the couple said. "No family should experience this type of loss."