RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC) — The family of Adam Oakes, the Virginia Commonwealth University freshman who died from alcohol poisoning in February, now wants to change Virginia’s hazing laws.
In a conversation with Oakes’ family at their home in Loudoun County in March, they told 8News their goal was to create legislation to make hazing a felony in Virginia. They believe fraternity hazing led to his death.
Currently, hazing is a Class 1 misdemeanor in Virginia. His family is working to bring “Adam’s Law” to the General Assembly next year.
Nearly four months since his death, the Oakes’ family is still heartbroken.
“When Adam passed, it not only killed Adam. It is slowly doing the same thing to my aunt and my uncle,” said Courtney White, Oakes’ cousin. “He was their only child. Every day, they walk by his bedroom and they cry.”
Since his death, the Delta Chi fraternity has been permanently banned from VCU.
White said she has been advocating for justice ever since, even creating a petition to change the Virginia law against hazing. It has amassed nearly 3,000 signatures as of Wednesday.
Hazing, according to state law, is “to recklessly or intentionally endanger the health or safety of a student or students or to inflict bodily injury on a student or students in connection with or for the purpose of initiation, admission into or affiliation with or as a condition for continued membership in a club, organization, association, fraternity, sorority, or student body regardless of whether the student or students so endangered or injured participated voluntarily in the relevant activity.”
White began her activism by doing the research.
“What is hazing? What is the punishment for hazing? Just really starting to do the research around it because we really wanted justice for Adam,” White said. “Once we started looking, we immediately found it was a Class 1 misdemeanor. We, as a family, were like ‘what can we do to make this better?'”
Punishment for hazing currently sits at a $2,500 fine and up to 12 months in jail. White said that is not enough.
She contacted her local state legislators and senators to create a draft of “Adam’s Law” to abolish hazing and make it a felony.
“If you know the hazing law and what can happen, what consequences can be paid — it’s going to make you think twice before you haze,” White said.
White then contacted other families across the nation who had been directly affected by hazing to gather forces to make the legislation happen.
“Every single one of us has a shared goal,” White said. “And that is to abolish hazing. It is preventing other lives from being lost.”
8News Legal Analyst Russ Stone said time will tell how the proposed bill will look come session next year.
“They’re discussing turning it into a felony,” Stone said. “That is something the legislature will take their time to look at. Perhaps there will be different grades of the offense.”
Stone said there could be levels to the offense.
“They could decide that if it were just serious bodily injury or death, that is the only part that would be a felony. Or it could be other than that,” Stone said. “What I always like to remind people of when they are considering things like this, whenever the government changes the law to make it easier to punish the guilty, they also make it easier to punish the innocent. So there is a need to be careful, but it is not unprecedented to do something like this.”
He said education is the best means of prevention.
That is something the Oakes family has begun to do through the work of their nonprofit, Love Like Adam.
White said the nonprofit’s mission is to help transition high school seniors and their families to college by giving scholarships and educating them before they leave their family’s homes and enter life on a college campus.
Oakes’ family will meet with lawmakers in July to look over a draft of the bill with hopes to have it ready by December. They are aiming to propose the bill to the General Assembly in February.