he father of Adam Oakes sat down at a conference table inside the Pocahontas government building, faced three state senators and described his life following the death of his only son. It’s a “painfully desolate” existence, Eric Oakes said.
Adam Oakes, a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University, died in February following an inebriated fraternity initiation party. His blood alcohol content was five times the legal driving limit, and 11 members of the fraternity have been charged with hazing.
“I can’t understand why nobody got him help,” Eric Oakes said.
On Monday, Oakes and his niece Courtney White advocated for legislation to prevent hazing and to toughen the penalties.
A state Senate subcommittee voted 3-0 to approve a bill that would restructure the roles of advisers, require hazing awareness training and mandate universities publish their fraternity misconduct. Called Adam’s Law, the bill heads to the Senate education committee.
A second bill, which would make hazing a felony, was not voted on Monday.
Sen. Mamie Locke, D-Hampton, the chairperson of the committee, said she was glad to see the legislation come forward.
“Hazing has gotten out of control,” she said.
Five Virginia students have died in alleged hazing incidents in the past 10 years, according to a website that tracks hazing deaths in the U.S.
After Oakes died, his family has worked to prevent more hazing deaths. They created the Live Like Adam Foundation to educate graduating seniors about the transition from high school to college, and they pushed for two bills that address hazing.
Both are sponsored by Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D-Fairfax. Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax, sponsored identical bills in the House of Delegates.
The first bill, which was approved by the subcommittee Monday, requires an adviser be present at new member events. Advisers would be tasked with providing in-person education on hazing to current and new members. Current law suggests anti-hazing training but doesn’t require it, Boysko said.
Part of the problem, White said, is that students don’t realize they’re being hazed when they’re encouraged to drink in excess. Their definition of hazing has become distorted.
When she was a student at Radford, White rushed a sorority, and she knew the way she was treated made her feel embarrassed. But she didn’t realize until later that she experienced hazing, she said.
The bill would also prevent fraternities and sororities from choosing former members as advisers. Advisers who are past members sometimes pass along a culture of hazing to students, White said. Because the adviser once endured a hardship, they think so should the new members.
Also, students who report hazing would be given immunity from punishment, encouraging students to report hazing.
The bill also would require universities to publish online the rule violations of their student organizations. Some colleges, including Cornell University, already do this. VCU says it intends to.
A Richmond Times-Dispatch investigation revealed that Oakes’ fraternity, Delta Chi, had a reputation for sexual assault, underage drinking, low grades and illegal parties. Its infractions were so frequent that in 2018, VCU decided to suspend the fraternity for four years.
But the fraternity hired a lawyer and appealed, and VCU reduced the suspension to one year.
If Adam Oakes had any idea what kind of fraternity he was joining, he never would have done so, his father said Monday.
The second bill, which wasn’t voted on, would make hazing a Class 5 felony, punishable by one to 10 years in prison, if the hazing causes the death or serious injury of the student. Hazing is currently a Class 1 misdemeanor, carrying no more than one year in jail. Virginia law defines hazing as recklessly or intentionally endangering the health of a student in connection to an organization’s initiation.
Twelve states currently consider hazing a felony, White said, and two more states have introduced bills to raise the punishment.
Also part of the bill is a provision that a person can be charged with hazing if it causes severe emotional distress. Current law dictates that bodily injury be suffered. If the hazing does not result in bodily injury, the crime would remain a misdemeanor.
Sen. Chap Petersen, D-Fairfax City, said he favored 95% of Adam’s Law. But at some point, he said, young adults must be given the chance to make their own decisions.
He also questioned if fraternities and sororities need the same requirements, saying hazing is a bigger issue for young men than young women. (The Times-Dispatch’s investigation revealed that in the past decade, VCU fraternities have been seriously punished far more often than sororities.)
But White countered, saying hazing isn’t limited to fraternities alone, and Locke agreed.
“It is both,” White said.