The Virginia State Capitol. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)
An anti-hazing bill, inspired by the death of a Virginia Commonwealth University freshman last year, passed a major hurdle Wednesday when the state Senate unanimously approved the legislation, known as “Adam’s Law.”
Adam Oakes, a 19-year old freshman from Sterling, died of alcohol poisoning in February 2021 after his family says he was told to consume the equivalent of 40 shots of whiskey at a VCU Delta Chi fraternity party. Oakes was found dead in a house on Clay Street the morning after the party, and the subsequent investigation led to 11 men being indicted on misdemeanor hazing charges.
SB439, which passed on a 38-0 vote, is intended to educate both students and university officials on the realities of hazing.
Sen. Jennifer McClellan, D-Richmond, and Sen. Jennifer Boysko, D- Fairfax, co-sponsored the legislation. The bill requires universities to provide “extensive, current and in-person education and information on hazing to all members and new members” of student organizations.
The bill also provides immunity from some disciplinary actions for students who report hazing incidents “in good faith” and requires university officials to provide a public report of all hazing incidents.
Del. Kathleen Murphy, D-Fairfax, has filed a companion bill in the House of Delegates, which has been referred to the higher education subcommittee. The bill has garnered eight Democrat co-sponsors.
McClellan said there had been concerns among university officials that they could be held responsible for student actions that they had no control over. Oakes’ family has contended that if the fraternity advisor had been present, he would still be alive.
“Senator Boysko has been working with them to try to address their concerns to a point, but we send our kids to college expecting that they would be safe,” McClellan said.
The bill that passed the Senate Wednesday bill was the first of two pieces of legislation inspired by Adam’s death. A second bill makes hazing a Class 5 felony if it results in death or serious bodily injury.
The legislation criminalizing hazing could face greater scrutiny, McClellan said Wednesday, although she is “cautiously optimistic” that it will pass. Increasing the penalty for a hazing violation is a tougher task than mandating education, she said.
Oakes’ cousin, Courtney White, said the family knew the system needed more than mandated hazing education when they found out the 11 men charged in Adam’s death were being prosecuted for misdemeanors.
“We knew right then and there when we found that out that we needed to change that penalty,” White said. “It should never be a misdemeanor to haze someone to the point of death.”
White, along with Oakes’ father Eric Oakes, were present for the Senate vote Wednesday. The pair has been actively lobbying for tougher hazing laws since Adam’s death, and White said they realized many college students did not understand the array of activities that could constitute hazing.
“They have devoted their lives to try to make a change to try to prevent another tragedy,” Boysko said.
Oakes said his son had been the type of kid to light up a room with his smile. He was a faithful role model for his second cousins in their neighborhood and wanted to study mass communications or sports marketing, his dad said.
“I love him, I miss him, and his death didn’t go in vain,” said his father. “We’re hopefully going to save some lives with this law and deter people from doing this again.”
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