News recently of eleven indictments in connection with the hazing death of Adam Oakes, a 19-year-old freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU), is once again a bone-chilling reminder of the web of consequences caused by a single incident of hazing.
Oakes was found dead of alcohol poisoning Feb. 27, 2021, at an off-campus Richmond, VA home following a Delta Chi fraternity pledge initiation that involved heavy consumption of alcohol. Oakes’ father said his son was pleased to have received a bid to join the brotherhood.
"He had already tried to get into other fraternities and had been turned down, but he saw the camaraderie. He'd see the brotherhood and just loved the actual acceptance," Eric Oakes, told WWBT, a CNN affiliate.
Late September, eleven of those “brothers” ages 19 to 22, were taken into police custody. They now face misdemeanor charges of unlawful hazing, and at least three of them face counts of purchasing and giving alcohol to a minor, according to Richmond Police. Virginia Commonwealth University has since permanently banned the Delta Chi fraternity from operating as a student organization.
Every time a young person dies of hazing, we are brought to our knees. Why does this continue to happen? Hazing deaths are almost always preventable. The victims are sometimes people who want to be accepted and are vulnerable to peer pressure that goes beyond their better judgement. Perpetrators take advantage of their position of power. Fortunately, people are beginning to be held accountable as our society realizes the egregious nature of this power dynamic. In California, Matt’s Law allows for felony prosecutions for serious injuries or deaths that are a result of hazing.
“Hazing is any activity expected of someone joining or participating in a group that humiliates, degrades, abuses, or endangers them regardless of a person’s willingness to participate.” according to a report authored by Dr. Elizabeth Allan and Dr. Mary Madden, professors from the University of Maine College of Education and Human Development.
Nationwide, many forms of hazing have traditionally been accepted as a standard rite of passage for new members of cultural and athletic organizations despite explicit school policies against it. From subtle to violent, research shows that all forms of hazing have the potential to cause emotional, psychological, and physical harm. Furthermore, in the majority of hazing deaths alcohol consumption is involved.
This tragedy hits home for the Cal Poly community, which has not been immune to hazing harm, consequences, and deaths — most notably the 2008 death of 18-year-old Carson Starkey following a Sigma Alpha Epsilon initiation ritual, which involved hazing with a deadly consumption of hard alcohol. Some members of the fraternity were put on trial. They faced felony criminal charges, jail sentences, and civil monetary damages.
Starkey’s tragic death inspired the birth of Aware Awake Alive, a nationwide campaign to increase public awareness about the signs of alcohol poisoning, the dangers of binge drinking and hazing, and the role each of us can play in saving lives. Aware Awake Alive grew into Cal Poly’s WITH US Center for Bystander Intervention, which conducts research about the prevalence of hazing and bystander intervention, as well as sexual assault, sexual harassment, intimate partner violence, unhealthy alcohol use, the misuse of non-prescription and prescription drugs, hate, bias and exclusion among college student populations.
The 2020 National College Student Bystander Intervention Survey (NCSBIS), conducted by WITH US, gathered hazing behaviors among college students in the United States. More than a quarter of students surveyed reported that they witnessed hazing in the last academic term. Of those incidents of hazing, more than 70 percent were categorized as “drinking rituals.” The most common places students reported hazing occurred were fraternities, sororities, and club athletics, according to the NCSBIS survey.
A cultural shift is needed to stop more deaths and harm from hazing. It will require an end to hazing traditions common among student groups, such as alcohol consumption, sleep deprivation, sex acts, isolation, and humiliation.
When planning an event or activity, individuals and organizations can self-screen to determine whether it poses a risk of hazing. WITH US partner, Stop Hazing, recommends considering answers to the following questions:
Stop Hazing also suggests intervening directly by letting others know you do not intend to participate in hazing; encouraging others not to participate; discouraging others who are hazing from continuing; or posing alternatives to hazing, such as attending an outing together like a movie, campus or community event, concert, or day at the beach. You can also plan group activities like a fitness class, bowling, hiking, or kayaking.
Student bystanders can be the difference makers in preventing harm and lives lost on college campuses. But even the most well-intentioned people may not be prepared to intervene and offer help in the moments that matter most. WITH US’ Upstander Week is one way to prepare for these moments. Aware Awake Alive also has a toolbox for students and organizations wanting to implement “stop hazing” programs. For more information about Upstander Week and Aware Awake Alive’s free resources, visit withus.org.
Join us in making a difference in students' lives today by joining the WITH US Center for Bystander Intervention.