Last spring Gary DeVercelly Jr., an 18-year-old freshman at Rider University in Lawrenceville, New Jersey, drank himself to death during an initiation rite at the Phi Kappa Tau fraternity. When he was pronounced dead at a hospital in Trenton, his blood alcohol concentration was 0.43 percent. Last week the local prosecutor's office responded to DeVercelly's death by charging three students and two university officials (the director of Greek life and the dean of students) with "aggravated hazing," which carries a penalty of up to 18 months in prison and a $10,000 fine. A.P. does not explain the basis for charging the administrators. But unless they were at DeVercelly's side shouting "drink, drink," this seems like a stretch, even if you accept the premise that anyone should be held criminally liable for an adult's decision to consume an entire bottle of vodka in less than an hour. Presumably the prosecution will argue that the administrators should have prevented DeVercelly's death through closer supervision of on-campus fraternities and that the students—Phi Kappa Tau's residence director, pledge master, and chapter president—either knew or should have known what was going on.
As long as we're spreading the blame around, perhaps the members of Congress who pushed New Jersey to raise its drinking age to 21 by threatening to withhold highway money should be indicted too. It's true that reckless drinking and stupid fraternity rituals predate our current de facto national drinking age. But the absurdly unrealistic expectation that college students, legally adults in every other respect, will avoid alcohol entirely until they turn 21, whereupon they will somehow know how to drink responsibly, pushes drinking underground, encourages excess, and discourages appropriate supervision by demanding abstinence instead of moderation.
[Thanks to CK for the tip.]