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Her cousin died in a hazing incident. Now she's educating Virginia college students on its dangers.

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Posted at 6:26 PM, Feb 27, 2024
and last updated 2024-02-27 18:29:16-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- On February 27 each year, Dr. Courtney White said she tries her best to keep busy all day so the emotions of the day do not take her over completely.

It was three years ago that VCU freshman Adam Oakes died from alcohol poisoning after an off-campus fraternity event.

Oakes was a cousin of Dr. White, and she said their family would never be the same.

“Everything we do, we’re doing in honor of him and making him proud," Dr. White said. “I know it’s three years, but it feels like yesterday. When we got the news, it kind of turned our whole world upside down. Everything in life changed at that point. Still, it's changed at this point.“

On the night of February 26, 2021, Oakes was attending a rush party for the Delta Chi fraternity, when he was served large amounts of alcohol as a part of a pledging ritual.

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Adam Oakes

Ultimately, no one intervened to help him after he showed clear signs of alcohol poisoning, officials said.

In the years since the fraternity was removed from campus, VCU worked with the Oakes family to make wholesale changes to their hazing prevention policies and procedures.

“Kids want to do the right thing, they just don’t know how. We kind of like have to lead that and help them in those discussions," said Dr. White.

On Tuesday evening, Dr. White and the Love Like Adam Foundation hosted a hazing prevention workshop with more than 70 student leaders on campus.

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Dr. Courtney White

The workshop is designed to facilitate discussions and action plans so that students taking part are the ones who identify and find ways to prevent situations where hazing might occur within their campus group or organization.

“Gives them, one, a sense of comfort because they have someone they trust to have these difficult conversations with, but two, they have these strategies they can actually implement," Dr. White said. "Until we get all of us at the table creating the change, it’s kind of like we’re going to be on the hamster wheel, steady spinning.“

Rachel Tully, VCU's Hazing Prevention Coordinator, said the workshop helps students see the only way to break a cycle of hazing within an organization is from within.

"The workshop and the work that Love Like Adam is doing provides student leaders this space to ask, 'Is this okay?' There's so much fear about 'you're going to tell me it's not,' and 'we're going to get in trouble when I don't know how to deal with that. So, I'd rather just ostrich it and put my head in the sand and move on,'" Tully said.

"I think that's what's beautiful about the workshop: It allows students, in a very safe environment, to analyze 'are we doing something that's not right because I've not had the time or opportunity to question that status quo,'" she continued.

In 2022, Virginia passed Adam's Law, which requires everyone who joins a student organization at a Virginia college or university to undergo hazing prevention training, including bystander intervention.

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Adam Oakes

A bill requiring Virginia 9th and 10th graders to take similar training passed the legislature on Tuesday.

Dr. White and Tully said exposing students to hazing prevention and recognition resources before they reach college campuses only enhances prevention measures.

"Students are going to start to learn how to talk about it before they get to college because when they’re getting here, they’re getting involved in those organizations where they don’t know how to talk about hazing behaviors and are not able to identify when something is not quite right," Tully said.

"Adam cared about people, and I know he would want us to be benefiting the students. That’s why we took this shift, like, what can we do for the students in his honor," Dr. White said.

The Love Like Adam Foundation has led dozens of training sessions at college and high school campuses across Virginia.

Dr. White said Greek life organizations at several large out-of-state universities have set up sessions as well.

You can learn more about the mission and contact information on their website.

The first-ever Virginia Hazing Prevention Summit — where leaders from college campuses across the Commonwealth will discuss their efforts and best practices — is scheduled for June 4 at VCU. Dr. White and Tully are organizing the event.

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