A man and a woman standing on either side of an image of Adam Oaks. The woman is holding a white cloth and crying.
Adam Oakes' parents Eric and Linda Oakes unveil a plaque and bench honoring their son outside the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life in University Student Commons. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

VCU and Oakes family hold inaugural day of remembrance for Adam Oakes

The university on Monday unveiled a plaque and bench in memory of the 19-year-old VCU student and held a variety of activities aimed at preventing hazing and other harmful behavior.

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Virginia Commonwealth University and the family of Adam Oakes remembered Oakes’ life on Monday with the unveiling of a plaque and a bench in his honor and a day of events focused on educating VCU students about the dangers of hazing.

“We hope students get a better understanding of what hazing is, how it happens and its impact on all those directly and indirectly involved,” said Courtney White, Oakes’ cousin. “Adam’s passing has impacted his friends, family and community. The amount of people impacted from this senseless tragedy and grief is never ending. Please learn from what happened that night two years ago and take it with you to be true agents of change in Greek culture.”

Oakes was a 19-year-old freshman at VCU when he died on Feb. 27, 2021, due to alcohol poisoning following an off-campus event at a fraternity. Subsequently, VCU permanently banned the fraternity as a registered student organization.

A day of remembrance and hazing prevention

The plaque and bench in Oakes’ memory were installed outside the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life inside University Student Commons. They were installed as part of “In Remembrance of Adam: Rams Against Hazing,” the university’s inaugural annual hazing prevention day and day of remembrance of Oakes and the causes and circumstances of his tragic death.

“The memorial, plaque and bench today honor the life of the most kind-hearted kid I know,” White said. “I only wish you all had the opportunity to meet, love and get to know him while he was still here. He was a good kid with his whole future ahead of him. If there is anything we take away from this, it’s stop hazing, dismantle the traditions and make the call to get help so no other family has to stand or sit where we are today.”

The plaque’s text reads:

Adam Oakes
October 6, 2001 – February 27, 2021

“In life, we loved you dearly, in your absence, we love you still. In our hearts you hold a place, no one else will ever fill.”

Adam Oakes was a beloved son, grandson, nephew, cousin, student and friend. He had a tremendous future ahead of him and his senseless death brought unspeakable pain and tragedy to all who knew him.

Adam’s family and friends, in partnership with VCU, are dedicated to fostering a safer and healthier community for students who are part of fraternities and sororities and to create a climate of respect and inclusion that is needed for academic and personal success.

A woman speaking at a podium in front of a room full of people.
Courtney White, Adam Oakes' cousin, remembered Oakes as "the most kind-hearted kid I know" and urged students to gain a better understanding of hazing, how it happens and how it can have a devastating and tragic impact. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

The plaque features a QR code that connects to a webpage with more information about Oakes and how to honor his memory by being a part of the solution.

Following the unveiling, the Oakes family met privately with members of the VCU community to talk about Oakes, share their loss and detail the work of the Love Like Adam Foundation, a nonprofit organization established by the family that provides hazing prevention education to universities and high schools in Virginia. The foundation’s mission is to raise awareness of the dangers of hazing, to save lives and to work to ensure that that no other family has to experience the pain of losing a child in such a tragic and preventable way.

The family and VCU on Monday also premiered a hazing prevention training video in the University Student Commons Theater that tells Oakes’ story. The video can be viewed at youtu.be/K2r-2h-1hEY.

In the afternoon, VCU students took part in interactive breakout sessions exploring topics related to hazing and risky alcohol use.

In one session, titled “Is it Hazing?,” students placed potential hazing behaviors on a spectrum from low risk to high risk. Another explored questions of why hazing happens and how a culture of hazing can be dismantled. In another, students worked with a facilitator to identify how much alcohol consumption results in specific blood alcohol content levels and the risk associated with such levels. VCU RecWell led a demonstration in which students poured what they would consider a normal drink for themselves, and peer health educators showed them the actual BAC levels associated with those drinks.

Students also had the opportunity to connect with resources and browse material from hazing prevention organizations at tables set up in University Student Commons. 

“Today’s activities provided an interactive opportunity for students to learn, engage and take away skills and knowledge on hazing that we wish Adam had that night,” White said. “Providing kids the tools to say no to hazing and to intervene when trouble occurs are crucial to saving lives in the future.”

On Feb. 27, 2023, Virginia Commonwealth University held “In Remembrance of Adam: Rams Against Hazing,” the university’s inaugural annual hazing prevention day and day of remembrance of Adam Oakes, a 19-year-old freshman at VCU who died on Feb. 27, 2021, due to alcohol poisoning in connection with a hazing ritual at an off-campus event at a fraternity.

A series of new measures

In the two years since Oakes’ death, VCU has implemented new measures to limit alcohol use by members of student organizations and to reduce the likelihood of students experiencing hazing.

These efforts include, but are not limited to:

  • Increasing the staffing and improving processes in the Office of Fraternity and Sorority Life to elevate the office’s reporting structure.  Three full-time staff were hired to support the office, including Joe Wheeless as director of fraternity and sorority life. Rachael Tully is VCU's first hazing prevention coordinator, serving in the Dean of Students Office.
  • Implementing a number of policy changes for fraternities and sororities including requiring 12 VCU credits and a minimum 2.7 cumulative GPA at VCU to join a Greek organization, requiring hazing prevention training, limiting the new member education period to 28 days, updating the events with alcohol policy for student organizations to require alcoholic beverages to be provided by a licensed and insured third-party vendor, and prohibiting new members at events with alcohol during their new member education period.
  • Incorporating bystander intervention instruction in the hazing prevention training required by Va. Code §23.1-820 (Adam’s Law) that focuses on assisting individuals who are being subjected to hazing, intoxicated, at risk of sexual violence, bodily injury or otherwise in need of help.
  • Increasing communication and relationship building with stakeholders by holding regular adviser meetings, leadership retreats, individual chapter leadership meetings and regular council meetings, and having leaders attend regional leadership conferences.

In 2022, the Virginia General Assembly passed Adam’s Law, which was supported by VCU and is designed to reduce hazing in fraternities and sororities at Virginia colleges and universities.

VCU posts online a report that provides summary information for all matters in which a student organization was found responsible for a violation of the Student Code of Conduct. While reports of hazing or concerning behavior by organizations has increased, the university considers more reporting to be a sign that anti-hazing training is raising awareness. Additionally, VCU believes Adam’s Law has played an important role in generating more conversations with students about anti-hazing behaviors.

VCU President Michael Rao, Ph.D., said Monday’s event on hazing prevention day and remembering Oakes is the beginning of “a safer, more positive future for students at VCU and everywhere.”

Black bracelets with yellow text that say \"Love Like Adam.\" They are next to a piece of paper that says \"Love Like Adam Foundation.\"
As part of the day's events, a resource fair in University Student Commons provided VCU students with hazing prevention strategies and information. (Photo by Tom Kojcsich, Enterprise Marketing and Communications)

“Our goal is simple but it’s profound. What happened to Adam is a horrible thing. Unimaginable. And hazing cannot happen to another person, to another student,” Rao said. “Virginia Commonwealth University will be a model for safe fraternity and sorority culture. Today is a very vital part of that conversation. It’s an important part of that conversation. We expect fraternities and sororities to understand that hazing is against the law, and it will not be tolerated.”

Rao said VCU wants to students to be able to identify hazing, to be empowered to say no and to understand how to report it, particularly when a person’s life is on the line.

“Fraternities and sororities are absolutely an important part of our community. For many students, it’s an important part of how they connect, it’s an important part of how they provide service to other organizations and to people in need,” Rao said. “There’s no question that there are opportunities for leadership, [but] real leadership puts all human beings’ safety first.”