RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)- Virginia lawmakers have failed to reach a compromise on increasing the punishment for severe cases of hazing, ending the effort for the year, and frustrating the family of Adam Oakes.
Oakes, a 19-year-old freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University, died from alcohol poisoning after a fraternity party last year. Eleven members of the Delta Chi fraternity were charged with unlawful hazing in connection with his death. So far, none have received jail time.
Eric Oakes, Adam’s father, said Virginia’s punishment doesn’t match the crime.
“Where is the justice for Adam? I mean, all of these people are getting off with a year probation and stuff and, you know, it’s not enough,” Oakes said in an interview on Monday.
Months ago, a small group of lawmakers was designated to iron out the differences between two versions of legislation changing how the state handles future cases like this. The General Assembly didn’t vote on it last week when they were back at the State Capitol and, now, multiple lawmakers on the conference committee say a deal isn’t going to happen.
“We’re not going to reach a deal, it’s very unfortunate,” said Senator Jennifer Boysko (D-Fairfax), who sponsored the Senate version of the bill. “I actually had a member of the Senate say ‘stop trying so hard, I’m not changing my position.'”
Courtney White, the cousin of Oakes, fears inaction will pave the way for another tragedy.
“Ohio refused to pass the bill and another child died and then they passed it. I don’t want to be like them,” White said. “I don’t want to replicate that grief or have another family go through that hurt because we have lawmakers that won’t pass the bill.”
The House of Delegates unanimously supported a bill to make hazing that results in death or serious bodily injury a Class 5 Felony, punishable by up to ten years in prison. In the Senate version, the most serious cases would’ve remained a Class 1 Misdemeanor with a maximum of one year in jail, though the legislation specified that offenders could simultaneously be prosecuted for involuntary manslaughter.
According to one law firm’s count, 13 states already have laws making hazing a felony when it results in death or serious bodily injury.
However, Senator Scott Surovell (D-Fairfax) said the felony penalty goes too far.
“The Senate has never supported making any kind of reckless behavior a felony except for DUIs, that has been it,” Surovell said. “I just don’t see a way to compromise on that.”
Oakes’ family suggested that some defense attorneys in the Senate who represent clients accused of hazing opposed the felony penalty for financial reasons, pointing the finger specifically at Senator Tommy Norment (R-James City).
In a phone interview on Monday, Norment said he has only represented one college student accused of hazing in his 40-year career and he has nothing to do with the defendants charged in connection with Oakes’ death. He said his work didn’t influence his decision.
“I think everyone on the committee, including myself, has enormous empathy for the loss of life of this young man,” Norment said. “But it was not a well-crafted piece of legislation that contained some very significant legal nuances.”
Norment said, in the future, he would be open to legislation that more narrowly defines what circumstances would be considered a felony.
“I would be amenable to trying to help draft a focused piece of legislation,” Norment said.
Norment said he also had concerns about language holding college presidents liable if they knowingly allow hazing to continue.
Boysko said another sticking point lawmakers will have to work through is how to handle immunity for students who try to help a hazing victim, including by seeking medical attention and cooperating with law enforcement.
In Oakes’ case, no one called 911 until he was already dead.
Boysko said she’s committed to trying again next year.
“Nobody sends their child to college thinking they’re going to die at a party and we can do something about that,” Boysko said.
In the meantime, the Oakes family says they’re celebrating the steps that were taken and helping to implement them.
A bill branded “Adam’s Law” will require fraternities and sororities to complete comprehensive hazing prevention training. Beginning with the 2022–2023 academic year, it will also mandate the public to report hazing incidents.
“He would want us to keep going. He would want us to keep helping others so that no one else would have to go through this,” White said.