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Virginia colleges meet to discuss hazing prevention best practices

People give remarks at a table
Megan Pauly
VPM News
Eric Oakes (left) listens as niece Courtney White gives remarks next to Rachael Tully, assistant dean of students at VCU, as part of the inaugural Virginia Hazing Prevention Summit on Tuesday, June 4, 2024 at VCU in Richmond.

The event was co-organized by VCU and the family of Adam Oakes, who died in 2021.

Representatives from more than a dozen public and private Virginia colleges and universities attended the state's first hazing prevention summit this week.

The event was co-organized by Virginia Commonwealth University and the family of Adam Oakes, who died of alcohol poisoning after being hazed at a fraternity initiation event in 2021.

Eric Oakes, Adam’s father, said it was great seeing so much collaboration among universities — including the exchange of ideas about what’s been working well and what needs to be improved following passage of Adam’s Law, named for his son.

Adam’s Law took effect in 2022 and required universities to provide hazing prevention training for certain student groups; most commonly campus fraternities and sororities. It also specifies that the training should touch on the dangers of hazing, including alcohol intoxication.

“Everybody has a common goal,” Oakes said. “And I know Adam’s [death] was the extreme of hazing. But there's so much mental and physical damage done with hazing, that it's something that needs to be eradicated 100%.”

For Courtney White, Adam’s cousin, seeing the summit come to fruition — and to see so many people learning about Adam’s story — was emotionally overwhelming. The Oakes family founded the Love Like Adam Foundation, which is dedicated to sharing Adam’s story.

“It's always my goal that more people know about him, and more people know about what he went through, so it doesn't happen to anybody else,” White said.

Panelists at the first hazing prevention summit included VCU researcher Mia Liadis. She discussed new findings on bystander intervention, a component of VCU’s hazing prevention training. Liadis found that students with marginalized identities had a higher likelihood to help somebody from their community.

“This is a novel finding,” Liadis said. “It's the first study to explore the impact of interlocking marginalized identities on bystander intentions.”

Liadis pointed to VCU’s medical amnesty policy as an important part of making bystander intervention successful. She said one of the top reasons students are hesitant to speak up about a peer in trouble is a fear of getting in trouble themselves or getting a friend in trouble.

This policy ensures those seeking medical care for themselves or others related to a drug or alcohol issue "will not be subject to disciplinary action by the university for prohibited behavior under the Student Code of Conduct."

“Some students might not know that that exists, some faculty and staff might not know that exists,” Liadis said. “I think it's important to share that policy with students and also to read it ourselves, so that we can talk with students about it.”

Adam’s Law implementation at VCU

Adam’s Law requires universities to provide hazing prevention training to current, new and prospective members of all student organizations that have an initiation period before membership is granted. The most common groups that have the process are fraternities and sororities.

“So, they have like a partial status, and that's typically where you see hazing behavior happen is within that time frame,” said Rachael Tully, assistant dean of students at VCU.

However, they are not all receiving hazing prevention training before or during that initiation period.

Tully said she holds frequent trainings throughout the academic year — including during these initiation periods. But the university gives students until the end of the semester in which they join a group to complete the training before facing repercussions.

That could mean that a student who joins an organization in February wouldn’t have to complete the training until May.

Tully said that as part of hazing prevention trainings at VCU, individual student organizations — not the university — can set more stringent requirements about when students should receive the training.

“Some organizations say, ‘We won't offer you a bid unless you do this training.’ That's entirely up to the organizations. Others are like, ‘You have to do it before we initiate you.’ Or, ‘You have until the end of the semester,’” Tully said. “So, our deadline is the end of the semester that you join.”

Tully added that while some universities have been able to provide the training to all students, regardless of affiliation with certain student groups, the size of a university’s student body impacts what “logistically you’re able to do” when figuring out how and when to hold the prevention trainings.

For example, William & Mary’s fall 2023 undergrad enrollment was just under 7,000 — while VCU’s was more than 21,000.

Additionally, the Virginia law only requires hazing prevention training to be provided to university-recognized organizations. Groups can — and have — lost recognition temporarily (or permanently, in the case of the Delta Chi Fraternity where Adam Oakes died) due to conduct violations, which are sometimes related to hazing.

Sometimes, after losing university recognition, these groups disband. But sometimes, Tully said, they simply move off-campus.

“Unfortunately, we don't have jurisdiction over those organizations,” Tully said. “If we ever learned about students who are part of it, and those students violate university policy, then we can address the student behavior: the individual behavior.”

Another requirement of Adam’s Law is that findings of reported hazing incidents be posted online ahead of each fall and spring academic semester.

Tully said VCU tries to communicate with students about which clubs are safe to join. She said a pamphlet is handed out during orientation detailing how to find organizations, what they should look for when considering membership — and a list of known groups that have either lost recognition or undergone the conduct process.

“We want you to be knowledgeable about the full scope of an organization before you join it, to be able to have intentional dialogue with the leaders,” Tully said.

Courtney White said it’s important not just for students to know about organizations’ conduct violations, but also parents.

“Parents need to be going on that website and seeing those incidents,” White said. “And if it's not updated, then how are they supposed to support their kids?”

Hazing not limited to fraternities and sororities

Tully said that beyond the scope of Adam’s Law, VCU is also providing training to the student leaders of campus athletic clubs and new student athletes.

In a 2008 national study of 1,000 students across 53 colleges, 73% of students at fraternities and sororities — and 74% of students involved in varsity sports — experienced hazing.

Members of the Gordie Center at UVA spoke about hazing in athletics at the summit. The center is dedicated to ending hazing and substance misuse among high school and college students.

“We have all heard the myths of hazing: Bonding activities will bring the team closer together; new teammates need to earn their spot and prove themselves worthy of the jersey; activities are all in good fun, and people can always choose not to participate,” wrote Susie Bruce, director of the Gordie Center, in a 2016 article about the issue. “The reality is that hazing is associated with lower team cohesion and can put personal, academic and athletic goals out of reach.”

Dirron Allen, JMU’s associate vice president of student affairs, attended the summit. He said he was excited to continue conversations at his university about what can be done differently to address hazing — from better communicating with students and families to potential changes to policies and procedures to better partnerships with student organizations.

“What we're really trying to do is instill humanity in our organizations,” Allen said. “We want our students to come to places and belong in healthy and meaningful ways.”

Abbi Hanson Allen, acting director of fraternity and sorority life at Virginia Tech, co-presented a panel discussion with a student.

“I think that's the most important thing,” Allen said. “Making sure that we're planning things for students, with students, by students.”

UVA will hold next year’s hazing prevention summit. Courtney White said other universities, like James Madison and Longwood, have already volunteered to host the event in future years.

Megan Pauly covers education and health care issues in the greater Richmond region.
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