RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)-Support for an anti-hazing bill in Congress is growing after the death of VCU student Adam Oakes.
The nineteen-year-old freshman died of alcohol poisoning last year after a fraternity party. Eleven members of the Delta Chi fraternity were charged with unlawful hazing in connection with his death.
Virginia Senators Tim Kaine and Mark Warner recently became co-sponsors of the “Report and Educate About Campus Hazing Act” after meeting with Adam’s parents.
“I wanted them to hear what kind of person Adam was…I wanted them to understand that this is 100 percent preventable,” said Eric Oakes, Adam’s father, in an interview on Monday. “These universities and colleges are getting so much federal funding and they allow this to continue to happen. It needs to stop immediately.”
Anti-hazing legislation has failed to gain traction in Congress in the past but Warner is hoping to see the bill cross the finish line this fall. He said that would allow it to be implemented in time for next school year.
“This is one of those pieces of legislation that no one is really against. I just hope that there doesn’t need to be stories like Adam’s to push members of Congress to get on board,” Warner said.
The REACH Act mirrors “Adam’s Law,” which passed in the Virginia General Assembly earlier this year.
The federal law would require colleges to report hazing incidents annually, similar to how sexual assault cases are handled. It would also define hazing, since several states don’t do that currently.
Courtney White, Adam’s cousin, said the changes would make it easier to track the problem, which is currently a challenge without a nationwide mandate. She said that would allow parents and students to make more informed decisions when entering Greek life.
“It has been very difficult because, if it is not required, people do not want to send you their data,” White said.
The legislation would also require institutions to establish a campus-wide, research-based program to educate students about the dangers of hazing.
Senator Warner said some of the details of that educational program should be left to each institution
“There is a fine line between mandating and strongly encouraging. I think there ought to be programs that should be developed. I do think the exact specifics of the program shouldn’t be dictated by Richmond or Washington,” Warner said.
However, White fears the educational standards outlined in the law won’t be strong enough to make a meaningful impact if schools are given too much discretion. She said the training needs to be interactive and engaging.
“We need to do things differently if we really want to create true change and, until we understand that as a state and as a nation, we aren’t going to make any substantial change against hazing,” White said.
As introduced, the federal legislation says the training program should be designed and implemented with a broad coalition of stakeholders, including school leadership, faculty, students, alumni and families. The bill says it should include information on hazing awareness, prevention and intervention. It also says school policies on reporting and investigating hazing cases should be detailed.
One reform not addressed by the federal legislation is increasing the penalty for unlawful hazing.
A push to make hazing that results in death or serious bodily injury a felony failed in Virginia earlier this year because state lawmakers couldn’t reach a consensus. Some states already have a felony penalty on the books.
“People need to be held accountable for their actions not just in one state. It needs to be all over our nation,” White said.
Asked about including that in the federal legislation, Warner said, “I’m not really sure what the level of penalty should be. That has not been my focus, my focus has been more about education. I’m open to more debate on that issue.”