Private Jersey College Grapples With Spate of Racial Incidents, Tragedies

TRENTON, N.J.

Rider University, where officials are still dealing with three recent bias incidents that have attracted public attention, is no stranger to controversy and tragedy lately. It has also been the scene of two deaths related to substance abuse that have attracted widespread attention and controversy this year.

Rider, a private, coeducational institution in Lawrenceville, about three miles north of Trenton, is best known for its business programs. It also specializes in liberal arts, and education, as well as music through its affiliate, Westminster Choir College, in nearby Princeton.

Last school year, an 18-year-old freshman from California, Gary DeVercelly, died after being admitted to a hospital with a toxic blood alcohol level. Two university officials and three fraternity officers were initially charged with aggravated hazing in connection with the death. Charges against Tony Campbell, the university dean of students, and Ada Badgley, director of Greek Life, were dropped on Aug. 28, and they returned from administrative leave.

As the school year opened, Rider’s president, Dr. Mordechai Rozanski, announced policies to safeguard students. They included prohibition of social events with alcohol in residence halls and Greek houses.

On Oct. 16, Justin Warfield, a Westminster Choir College freshman from Columbia, Md., whose mother is a Lutheran minister, died after being injected with heroin by a fellow student. A sophomore, Kieran Hunt, 19, of Piscataway, was charged with strict liability in Warfield’s death with possible penalties of 10 to 20 years in prison if convicted. Two other classmates were charged with harassment by scribbling with markers on Warfield’s skin before someone noticed the unconscious classmate was not breathing and called for help. Toxicology reports have not been completed, the university said.

A few days earlier, David Rebovich, a 58-year-old respected political analyst, died after having a heart attack while teaching at the university. A few days after the Warfield death, a minor was charged with a sexual assault alleged to have taken place in a dorm following a drinking incident. No names were released in that case.

Most recently, police were investigating graffiti found at a residence hall and reported by university officials on Saturday night. The graffiti consisted of racial epithets, including the N-word, written on posters for unity and diversity events scheduled on campus. Those events were a response to an earlier incident in which the “N-word” was found scrawled on five doors at a residence hall.

The university president issued a statement about the racial incidents. “On behalf of our entire community, I condemn this act of intolerance and hatred. It is contrary to our Statement of Community Values and is totally unacceptable…. The hateful words have been removed, but can never be cleansed from the eyes that observed them.”

We take this matter very seriously and will not stand for members of our community being marginalized,” he said.

More recently, a student posted a slur about Latinos to a Facebook page after receiving an online flier advertising events for Hispanic Heritage Month and a unity vigil responding to the earlier episode of “N-word” graffiti.

Amy Lapaix, a freshman and public relations chair for the Latin American Student Organization (LASO), said she received a reply on her Facebook account from Emily P. Howell, a sophomore, telling her to “go to another country” and concluding that “maybe you could go pick some vegetables or make some salsa for your event.”

Rider officials condemned the incident last week and said the responsible student would be disciplined.

“This posting is disrespectful, repulsive and totally unacceptable. It is contrary to everything we stand for as a community,” said Rozanski.

After the Facebook posting, he convened a meeting of Rider faculty, administrators and student leaders, including representatives of the Latin American Student Organization, to discuss the university’s future.

In addition, university officials said a President’s Committee on Diversity has been established to offer guidance on new ways to promote diversity and unity on campus. The committee is made up of student leaders, representatives of ethnic campus organizations and administrators. “Although we believe these to be isolated incidents,” the university president said, “we will turn them into teachable moments by taking this action.”

Daniel E. Higgins, executive director of university communications at Rider, said the Community Standards Board was investigating the Facebook incident as a possible violation of rules prohibiting verbal or nonverbal harassment under the student code of conduct. As part of the judicial process, the community standards board would determine the level of violation, he said. Students, faculty and staff make up the board. Punishment could range from a small fine to suspension.

A similar procedure would be followed in the case of the graffiti if the perpetrators were found. Local police are trying to help find the responsible parties and could charge students as well under laws prohibiting bias crimes.

Higgins said the university had not noticed any drop off in attendance or interest in applying as a result of its recent notoriety. A recent open house was well attended, he said.

This year the university has 4,733 undergraduate and 1,249 graduate students, a total of 5,982. The student body is approximately 73 percent White, 9 percent African-American, 5 percent Asian, 5 percent Hispanic and 8 percent unspecified.

“I think that by handling each situation directly, expeditiously and openly that that is the best way to approach these kinds of situations,” said Higgins, “and I think that that will reflect well on the university.”

An article in the Rider News, a student publication, concludes that crime statistics place Rider about in the middle of comparable campuses. The sprawling, green campus is in a serene, suburban residential area between Trenton and Princeton that is considered relatively safe.

According to the Rider newswire, 300 people participated in the Oct. 17 Unity Vigil organized by the Student Government Association (SGA), Center for Multicultural Affairs and Community Service, the Women’s Center, and the Princeton Student Government Association.

Don Brown, director of the Office of Multicultural Affairs and Community Service, told attendees, “There is no place for hate here at Rider,” said Brown. “This kind of occurrence on campus can split a campus apart. It’s not about hate, it’s all about community.”

On Nov. 7, Rider will host its previously scheduled inaugural Marvin W. Goldstein Prejudice Reduction Lecture. Dr. Susan T. Fiske of Princeton University will speak on, “Perils of Prejudice: Universal Biases in Mind, Brain and Culture,” at 8 p.m. at Rider’s Bart Luedeke Center Theater. The series will honor a noted professor of psychology at Rider who is director of the Julius and Dorothy Koppelman Holocaust/Genocide Resource Center.

–Diverse Online staff

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