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Editorial | Binge Drinking on Campus

Holding administrators accountable

Getting a handle on binge drinking at the nation's colleges and universities is a year-in, year-out challenge for school officials. Rarely, but tragically, their effort to deter unsafe drinking is met by the worst defeat - a student's death.

Rider University faced such a calamity this past semester when an 18-year-old freshman died following a fraternity pledge initiation event. Gary DeVercelly of Long Beach, Calif., had a blood alcohol level more than five times the legal limit. He died March 30.

Since then, Rider officials have implemented new policies to curb campus drinking, including a ban on alcohol at fraternity parties.

But that didn't stop New Jersey prosecutors from sending a message that stunned Rider and will echo far beyond its campus.

A Mercer County grand jury Friday indicted three Phi Kappa Tau fraternity brothers and two Rider administrators in DeVercelly's death.

Under the state's anti-hazing law, it's a fourth-degree crime to have "knowingly or recklessly organized, promoted, facilitated or engaged in conduct" that results in injury. The charge carries a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000.

Mercer County Prosecutor Joseph Bocchini said the college officials were culpable, though neither he nor the one-paragraph indictment explained why.

The notion that the morning-after consequences to campus boozing can include jail time should mean something to students (in their sober moments) and, above all, to college administrators everywhere.

Prosecuting Rider's dean of students and its director of fraternity programs shows what a high-wire act trying to prevent binge drinking can be for college administrators.

Only presentation of evidence and trial can determine whether it was fair to charge the officials, who were not at the party. For now, it's clear only that this dramatic step will spur other campuses to redouble their campaigns against out-of-control drinking.