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Death of a VCU student and a history of hazing: 'It's got to stop'

Posted at 9:31 AM, Mar 09, 2021
and last updated 2021-03-09 23:32:36-05

RICHMOND, Va. -- The death of VCU student Adam Oakes, whose family said was given a dangerous amount of alcohol at a fraternity event before he was blind-folded and hit his head on a tree, opened wounds for a couple more than 300 miles away.

“It's crushing every time you see another death,” said Evelyn Piazza. “It’s like somebody punched me in the gut. Not only was it alcohol, but it was a head injury and it just hit a little too close to home.”

News of Oakes’ passing took New Jersey couple Evelyn and Jim Piazza back to the February 2017 call that changed their lives.

Like Adam Oakes, 19-year-old Penn State student Tim Piazza was looking to be accepted into a brotherhood the night he’d be given 18 drinks in less than 90 minutes as part of a hazing ritual at the Beta Theta Pi fraternity house.

“They said that he was at the fraternity house and fell down the stairs once, maybe twice," said Tim’s mother Evelyn. "Jim said 'this better not have anything to do with that fraternity' and I said, 'turns out it was the first night of pledging.'”

“At that point, I knew, I knew he was gonna die,” Tim’s father Jim Piazza added.

Piazza’s death resulted in one of the largest hazing prosecutions in the nation’s history.

Tim Piazza.png

Piazza’s parents said the prosecution was only part of the solution.

"All the states have to have tougher laws," Jim said. "We and a couple of other families have been able to get better laws put in place in certain states. But usually, it takes somebody to die in a state or from a state before the state legislators even listen, which is awful."

Fifteen people have died in Virginia from presumed hazing incidents since 1915, according to Hank Nuwer.

Nuwer has been keeping track of them since the 1970s when the Franklin College Emeritus Professor and author witnessed a pledge in need of rescue.

"He was foaming at the mouth. The only time I've ever seen that in my entire life, and I didn't have to, you know, scream or yell. I said, ‘He's in trouble. You've got to walk him.’ But what I should have called was the police to get an ambulance over there," Professor Nuwer said.

“Fraternities act in a different way in a group than they would individually. Plus, there's a lot of deception. There's lying afterward and there seems to be no empathy for the victim. The victim is looked at as a tissue to be thrown away and the Piazza case is a big case in point,” he said.

Nuwer has dedicated much of his career to studying hazing and said there has been at least one death a year to hazing on campuses across the country since 1959, and three already under investigation this year including the death of an Ohio college student Sunday and Oakes who was found unresponsive February 27, inside the off-campus Delta Chi fraternity house.

"The intensity of something like this at VCU, if that's the correct report, kind of flabbergasted me and I've been writing about this since 1975," said Nuwer. "I think maybe we shouldn't have been, but educators, at least at all the schools need to be watching these hazing incidents now, because it's been dormant and now it seems to be hitting with a vengeance."

Fifty-five percent of college students involved in clubs, teams, and organizations experience hazing, according to StopHazing.

"It's got to stop,” Tim’s mother Evelyn said. “It's been multiple in Virginia. Now it is beyond time for them to get a felony hazing law on the books and to actually prosecute hazing to the fullest extent!"

Virginia is one of 44 states that has an anti-hazing law. But if convicted in the Commonwealth it’s a class one misdemeanor. Unlike 10 states that have laws that can make hazing a felony if it results in death or serious injury.

Since losing their son, the Piazzas have joined forces with other parents to not only strengthen state and federal laws but force colleges and universities to be more transparent with reporting hazing incidents through the END ALL Hazing Act.

"What would Tim be saying right now as he's watching his parents fight so hard for him?” CBS 6 investigative reporter Laura French asked the Piazzas.

"I think he'd feel really bad that we're here, but I think he'd be proud of the fact that we're trying to make a difference because that's the kind of kid,” Evelyn said.

"He would be, he wanted to make a difference because that's the kind of kid he would be, he was. He wanted to make a difference. He wanted, I mean, his goal in life was to make prosthetics for children. I think he'd be; I think he'd be proud of us and I feel like he's got a hand on our shoulder many times when we're doing these things,” Jim added.

To make that difference on college campuses Nuwer said students need to have the courage to speak up.

"Out them, they're on their campus, you know, they're bad actors, you see how they behave, you're in a sorority, you don't want to go to their house, report them, get rid of them. That's what undergraduates can do. Loyalty is a good thing, but not loyalty to criminals. Acceptance isn't so important and that's a characteristic of this generation and generations for a few years. They want to be accepted by the group and they are being betrayed by those that call themselves brothers,” said Nuwer.

"We don't want this to happen again to other families," Adam Oakes' father Eric said.

Following Oakes’ death, an investigation began, and the Delta Chi fraternity was dealt a cease-and-desist order by the national chapter and the university.

VCU and Richmond Police are investigating Oakes’ death, but officials have not confirmed specific details of how he died.

“There are no updates at this time. The investigation is ongoing," a Richmond Police spokesperson said Monday.

"Part of the police investigation will determine whether Adam’s death was related to a Delta Chi activity," Dr. Charles Klink, senior vice provost for student affairs, said in a message to VCU students, faculty and staff.

The independent Greek review is at the direction of VCU President Michael Rao.

CBS 6 investigative reporter Laura French reached out to VCU to ask when the university expected to complete the review and offer recommendations.

"There is no timetable for the review," a university spokesperson replied via email.

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