Education

The Death of a Student in a Fraternity House Sparked an Anti-Hazing Bill in Virginia. It Failed.

After students have died in apparent hazing incidents, some states have responded to public pressure by enacting more severe penalties for hazing, including making the practice a felony.

But not Virginia. State lawmakers this month failed to pass an anti-hazing bill that would have allowed more such cases to be prosecuted as felonies. The lack of action has drawn criticism from the family of a Virginia Commonwealth University student who died last year at a fraternity event.

Adam Oakes, a freshman at VCU, died of alcohol poisoning in February 2021 after attending a fraternity party. Eleven former members of the Delta Chi fraternity chapter were charged with misdemeanor offenses including hazing, and four have pleaded guilty — but so far none have received jail time.

VCU officials permanently expelled Delta Chi from campus in May 2021 and ordered an outside investigation of the university’s Greek-life system. The director of Greek life at VCU also expressed support for Adam’s Law, SB439, which was named for Oakes. The legislation, which Virginia’s governor signed into law in April, requires institutions to hold mandatory hazing-prevention training for student organizations and publicly report all hazing incidents.

On top of that success, two Virginia lawmakers sponsored another bill to classify hazing that results in serious injury or death as a felony charge and to grant full immunity to those who call for help. But the two chambers of the legislature were unable to reconcile differences to pass the bill, SB440. House members, for instance, opposed the idea of immunity, said state Sen. Jennifer B. Boysko, who introduced the bill in the Senate, while the Senate opposed the felony classification.

Boysko, a Democrat, said she didn’t want to see the text of the legislation watered down, so she “decided to let the bill die.”

“When Adam died, nobody called for help. And the students are not, I mean, they’re not going to see a day of jail time,” Boysko said. “This is something that we believe is absolutely preventable if people understand the ramifications.”

When Adam died, nobody called for help. And the students are not, I mean, they’re not going to see a day of jail time.

Jennifer Boysko, Virginia state senator

Virginia’s struggle to increase the hazing penalty comes as similar cases are being resolved in other states with felony charges on the table. Two former fraternity members at University of Missouri are facing felony charges after a hazing incident last October left Daniel Santulli, a freshman, blind and unable to walk or communicate. Three fraternity members at Michigan State University were charged this month with one felony count apiece in the death last November of Phat Nguyen, a junior transfer student. (They pleaded not guilty, according to the student newspaper, The State News.)

And in the past three years, lawmakers in states grieving students’ deaths have quickly passed legislation raising the hazing penalty to felony level. Governors in Louisiana and Pennsylvania signed such bills into law in 2018. And Ohio legislators last year passed Collin’s Law, named for Collin Wiant, an Ohio University freshman who died in 2018. But that came only after the March 2021 death of a student at Bowling Green State University, Stone Foltz sparked them to act.

Boysko fears that if Virginia’s General Assembly waits too long, another student will die, too.

“Nobody goes off to college or sends their children to college thinking that they’re going to die at a party,” Boysko said. “This is something that we can do to change that.”

Several states have laws that make hazing a felony when it results in death or serious injury. And while not all of them were motivated by a student’s death, the sometimes-causal relationship is a “sad reality,” said Elizabeth Allan, a professor of higher education at the University of Maine at Orono and principal investigator for the organization StopHazing.

“It is often the case that we don’t come up with a response until there’s been a very, very serious issue or harm that’s resulted,” Allan said. “And that’s not unique to hazing.”

According to Virginia state Sen. Scott Surovell, chairman of a judiciary subcommittee that deliberated over the felony provision, the state does have a felony-charge option in place for hazing. But the conduct must meet the standards for involuntary manslaughter, meaning the act is committed knowing that there is a good chance it will result in death or serious injury.

But prosecuting hazing as involuntary manslaughter is rare.

“These hazing situations, they’re always incredibly tragic situations,” said Surovell, a Democrat. “But I don’t think I’ve ever heard of one where some fraternity or sorority person knew that by asking somebody to do something, they were going to end up dead or being seriously injured. If they knew that, they’d get charged with a felony.”

Most hazing cases are classified as reckless behavior, which refers to conduct that endangers someone’s safety without the original intention of causing injury. Advocates for the original bill wanted to lower the bar for felony charges in hazing cases to make it apply to reckless-behavior standards.

“And, you know, that’s not something that we do, because criminally, you typically judge the act by the conduct and the intent, not the outcome,” Surovell said. Virginia has lowered the standard for a felony charge to reckless only once before, for drunken-driving cases.

Researchers are still studying the efficacy of policies that raise the hazing penalty, especially to the felony level, Allan said. But some studies suggest that increasing the penalty may not be effective in actually reducing hazing.

Surovell said the felony provision of the original bill failed to gain the support of either Democrats or Republicans because of that limited effectiveness.

“Research says that what deters behavior in the criminal world is the likelihood of prosecution, the likelihood of getting caught and convicted — not the fact that something constitutes a crime,” Surovell said. “So it seems to me that if your intention is to deter hazing, I think that the more appropriate policy focus should be, how do we catch more people engaging in hazing and ensure that they’ll be held accountable for doing it, as opposed to, let’s make some new felonies.”

Allan said policies increasing hazing penalties need to be supplemented by education efforts.

“Laws can be a helpful part of the picture, the bigger picture of prevention, in that they communicate a strong message about expectations for behavior,” Allan said. “But it is not enough. We have to also work to get to the root of the problem. We want to take an upstream approach where we’re trying to prevent it before it happens.”

Through StopHazing, Allan advocates for the passage of the Report and Educate About Campus Hazing Act, which would federally define hazing, require institutions to report incidents, and mandate educational programming — similar to the goals of Adam’s Law.

“It needs to be more widely understood why hazing is a problem, how it causes harm, how it undercuts the good things that we’re working toward for students,” Allan said. “And also, it’s important for consumers to be more aware and knowledgeable about what they may be joining, for example, in the case of student organizations.”


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