College administrators worry over their liability
BY ANA M. ALAYA Star-Ledger Staff
The recent indictment of two Rider University administrators following the alcohol-related death of a student at a fraternity is prompting colleges and universities across the state and country to review their alcohol policies.
But perhaps a bigger worry for schools is the amount of liability they might be asked to bear for students' dangerous behavior.
"I can assure you there are a lot of conversations taking place on campuses about this," said George Brelsford, dean of students at Rowan University in Glassboro. "Certainly we are watching this case very closely. We are reviewing everything we do as it relates to alcohol and student groups. You always ask yourself the same question in higher education: 'Could that happen here?'"
The two Rider officials, Dean of Students Anthony Campbell, 51, of Lawrence, and director of Greek (fraternity) life, Ada Badgley, 31, of Lawrenceville, were indicted on charges of aggravated hazing after an 18-year-old freshman collapsed at the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity house on the school's Lawrenceville campus. The student reportedly had chugged nearly a full bottle of hard liquor at a pledge party. Also indicted in the March incident were three students affiliated with the fraternity. All have pleaded not guilty and a court date has been set for Sept. 10.
While prosecutors have released few details about the case surrounding the death of Gary DeVercelly of Long Beach, Calif., the impact of the case could be far-reaching.
College officials across the country are scrambling to beef up their alcohol policies and plan to discuss responsible behavior with students when schools open in September. Some experts speculate a guilty verdict could signal a sea change in liability risks on campuses, causing insurance premiums to escalate and colleges to distance themselves from Greek organizations, or even attempt to ban them.
"What I see is a big chill coming down (on administrators)," said Peter Lake, director of Stetson University's Center for Excellence in Higher Education Law and Policy.
"They might think, 'I might go to jail for doing my job,'" said Lake, an education law expert who has handled many college negligence cases.
While it is not unusual for alcohol-related student deaths to be heard in civil court, experts say it is unusual for administrators to be criminally charged.
Ada Meloy, general counsel for the American Council on Education, an umbrella association for the nation's colleges and universities, said she knows of no state where university officials have been criminally prosecuted under the anti-hazing statutes.
"As a general legal matter, colleges are able legally to be held responsible for the actions of their employees, but not for the actions of their students," Meloy said.
Some worry that may change.
"You don't have supervision 24 hours a day, so obviously there are gaps, and the question is, what's reasonable?" asked Richard McKaig, dean of students at Indiana University's Bloomington campus.
McKaig, who also is the former longtime director of the Center for the Study of the College Fraternity, said his university, where there are about 50 Greek chapters, has asked him to hold a meeting to discuss the Rider case and its possible impact.
In New Jersey, officials contacted at half a dozen colleges said they are reviewing their policies and are concerned about what precedent the Rider case could set.
"Anyone who is in any position in student affairs certainly has been touched by these indictments and this tragedy," said Mary Anne Nagy, vice president for student services at Monmouth University. "This is a painful time. ... I think that it's given pause for every one in the profession to sit back and take a look at things."
Karen Pennington, Montclair State University vice president for student development and campus life, said she will hold a student forum to discuss issues raised by the case.
"I don't know what the prosecutor and grand jury had to make their decision, but in general, we're not at the events where this kind of thing is happening, so it's hard to say we are responsible," she said. "I think our responsibility lies in teaching and educating students, and some responsibility lies with the parents to educate."
Gregory Blimling, vice president for student affairs at Rutgers University, agrees there are limits to the oversight colleges can provide.
"Students make up their own minds on alcohol consumption and this is an age-related issue they have to work through. We give them as much information as possible to make sure they don't injure themselves," said Blimling.
The job of guarding students round-the-clock is daunting, said Sheldon E. Steinbach, senior counsel in higher education practice at Dow Lohnes in Washington, D.C., which counsels more than 600 campuses nationwide.
"It is impossible to police the activities of individual students on a given evening," he said.
Steinbach believes Rider University did all the right things to prevent the tragedy, including alcohol awareness sessions for fraternities and publishing strict rules against hazing. "The instruction was all there. It was laid out," he said.
New Jersey's law, however, is among the most broadly written of the 44 states that make hazing illegal, experts said. A person is guilty of aggravated hazing -- a felony that carries a maximum penalty of 18 months in prison and a fine of up to $10,000 -- if he or she "knowingly or recklessly organizes, promotes, facilitates or engages" in hazing activity that results in serious bodily injury.
"I think it's excellent that the prosecutor is finally holding administrators responsible," said Susan Lipkins, who wrote "Preventing Hazing: How Parents, Teachers, and Coaches Can Stop the Violence, Harassment, and Humiliation."
"All too often in high schools and colleges, we find the administration says 'no hazing' and then they look the other way," she said.
Up until the 1960s, universities were legally considered in loco parentis, "in the place of a parent." The doctrine was used as a legal shield that permitted universities to impose curfews, curtail speech and impose codes of conduct without legal repercussions.
But the doctrine grew out of favor in the 1960s when students protested for civil rights and courts decided colleges should treat students as young adults. If it were to return, in loco parentis would likely mean more liability for colleges, experts say.
In fact, a cultural shift already has begun.
Pennington at Montclair said Baby Boomer parents, having invested a great deal of time in their children and a significant amount of savings on their education, put more pressure on colleges to watch over them.
"There was a sheltering of these children, and parents expect colleges to continue that," Pennington said. "And that's something we struggle with because we firmly believe that at age 18, 22, or 35, that these students are adults and part of our job is helping them be young adults and develop critical thinking so they can go out on their own."