Two fraternity deaths in two months. COVID-19 didn't stop hazing – it may have hid it from 'watchful eyes'

Chris Quintana, USA TODAY
·12 min read

Adam Oakes’ family still can’t find his glasses.

The 19-year-old student at Virginia Commonwealth University had been wearing them in late February when he left his home. He wanted to attend an off-campus party with what he had hoped would be new friends in the Delta Chi fraternity, according to his family.

Eric, Adam’s father, didn’t know much about this fraternity, its troubled history on campus or the fact that it was recently reinstated. What’s more, he believed hazing to be a serious crime that would deter any life-threatening harm to his son. By 1 p.m. the next day when law enforcement showed up to tell him Adam died, he realized he was wrong.

The details are still unclear, but here’s what the family says they know based on conversations they have had with people at the party: Adam was given alcohol and expected to drink. He passed out on the floor. In the morning, he was purple and had no pulse, and that’s when 911 was called.

Adam Oakes, 19, was a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University when he died earlier this year.
Adam Oakes, 19, was a freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University when he died earlier this year.

Eric and Courtney White, Oakes’ cousin, believe someone knows more than they have shared. The missing glasses haunt them. Adam was basically blind without his glasses. How bad must the night have been for him to lose them?

"You don't send your kid to college for this to happen," White said. "Just as he's starting to flourish, his life was cut short."

Oakes’ story, though, is painfully familiar. For the past several decades, a college student has died every year while trying to prove his place among his peers. More often than not, these young men have been pushed to drink large amounts of alcohol, or to brave some enervating physical trial. Sometimes both are true.

Last year, though, was different. There wasn’t a hazing death, at least one that has been reported. (Such cases may not come to light until years given the secrecy of these groups.)

The coronavirus pandemic shuttered many of the traditional recruiting and social activities common to the Greek life experience. Close observers also said social distancing rules may have helped to prevent serious cases, but they didn't solve the underlying problem. Experts and observers in the field say the conditions are ripe to see a resurgence of hazing behavior and alcohol abuse from these groups, especially as students return to campuses across the country next fall.

“They’re taking matters into their own hands,” said Gentry McCreary, CEO of Dyad Strategies, a consultant group that advises universities about Greek life. “They’re doing it largely away from the watchful eyes of chapter officers or advisers. It’s a recipe for disaster."

Just look at Adam's death. And about a week later, Stone Foltz, a 20-year-old at Bowling Green State University, died in similar circumstances. Details in both cases are cloudy, but alcohol and hazing are suspected as factors.

Stone Foltz, 20, died after a hazing incident at Bowling Green State University.
Stone Foltz, 20, died after a hazing incident at Bowling Green State University.

An attorney representing the Foltz family declined to be interviewed by USA TODAY but said that the young's man death was a "tragedy" and that the family was "interviewing witnesses and gathering information to figure out exactly what happened on March 4."

The family did tell The Columbus Dispatch, a part of the USA TODAY Network, that Foltz didn't want to drink but that it would be required if he wanted to join the local chapter of Pi Kappa Alpha International.

Their attorney said the young man was forced to drink an "entire bottle" as part of his initiation. Foltz was taken to his apartment. That's when his roommate found him and called 911. But it was too late. His mother, Shari Foltz, is unflinching in describing the blame she believes belongs to the young men who forced him to drink.

"To me, you killed him," Shari said. "You killed him and you left him there to die."

Will fall bring a 'tremendous backlash?'

Hank Nuwer is an author and researcher who has been writing about and tracking fraternity hazing deaths for decades. He said that from 1959 to 2019, “at least one U.S. school, club or organization hazing death has been reported” every year.

He hasn’t added a new death to his list for 2020. Nuwer said, however, that news of such deaths is sometimes slow to emerge because of criminal investigations or the reluctance of some to speak.

Nuwer said it was likely the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions on social activities at colleges helped tamp down cases. (But Nuwer said there were still some close calls.)

The lack of deaths, though, may lull administrators into a false sense of security, he said, and he fears what will happen when students return to campuses in the fall.

The deaths at Bowling Green State and Virginia Commonwealth universities also come on the heels of a year’s worth of public scorn toward these social groups. Fraternities and sororities are built on social, in-person connections, and while some turned to Zoom or other digital alternatives, some kept partying. In some cases, fraternities and sororities have been accused of spreading the coronavirus.

Earlier this month, fraternities at Duke University were tied to a coronavirus outbreak that led to a campus lockdown, according to the News and Observer. The University of Rhode Island increased coronavirus testing specifically for Greek members on campus, according to Rhode Island Public Radio, because of outbreaks in that community. And the student government at the University of the Virginia had denounced Greek organizations for failing to follow coronavirus guidelines, according to the student newspaper, the Cavalier Daily.

At the same time, students on campuses including Vanderbilt and the University of Richmond (VCU is also in Richmond) have been pushing their administration to “abolish Greek life,” saying the groups foster a toxic culture.

But they can be a problem even when they're not on campus. Universities that have done away with Greek life may find themselves dealing with renegade chapters years later.

And while the pandemic may have accelerated concerns, fraternities have been asking themselves for years if the connection to a university is worth the trouble, said McCreary. (McCreary’s group will be conducting reviews of Bowling Green and VCU's Greek Life systems.)

A handful of fraternities at Duke disaffiliated from the university this year because they disagreed with the university's policies on fall recruitment.

And once they walk away, he said, it’s “like squeezing toothpaste out of a tube.”

“There’s no putting it back in,” McCreary said. “Duke will never get those fraternities back.”

As for the deaths, McCreary has mentioned three factors that might explain them. First, alcohol consumption is up both nationally and within fraternity chapters.

Second, chapters are seeing more members who are already sold on the fraternity experience and fewer members who might have been on the fence. That means, McCreary said, fewer people to push back on the more harmful aspects of Greek culture such as binge drinking or group hazing.

And third, McCreary said, his firm had seen an increase in hazing behavior meant to establish dominance over newer members. He argued fraternities are still feeling the pinch of social distancing restrictions and may be striving to re-create their traditions within spaces that aren’t as heavily monitored as campus or chapter houses.

McCreary is also wary of what happens when some campuses start to reopen in the fall while others remain shut. How will fraternities act, he asked, if they are on lockdown while they see their peers in a neighboring state partying? That may lead to a "tremendous backlash.”

“In 2020, most people were likely to be playing by the rules,” McCreary said. “As things are opening back up, students are taking it less seriously again because they have already had it by this point.”

'They have to be criminally prosecuted'

Eric Oakes, Adam’s father, said he initially thought it was a good thing for his son to join a fraternity. The 19-year-old’s roommate had already joined, and so had some of his friends from childhood.

His father figured the comradery would be good for his son, especially in a year when social interactions were curtailed. Adam had one class in-person his first semester, but the rest of his classes had been online, the family said. Still, he lived on campus to try to capture some of the college experience.

The younger Oakes had expressed some concern about joining a fraternity, his father said. He had played sports in high school, but he was overweight, and Adam was worried what would happen if he was forced to run some kind of time-trial. Alcohol was also a concern, White said, but he was mostly concerned about the lack of information around the party.

Eric said he did wish that had he known the VCU chapter of Delta Chi was suspended from 2018 to 2019 and had recently been reinstated. If he had known that, he said, he might have encouraged his son to choose another option. And Eric said he thought hazing laws might be enough of a deterrent to protect his son.

In some states, such as California and Pennsylvania, hazing can be prosecuted as a felony. But others don’t have rules, or as in Virginia consider hazing a misdemeanor. And some states do require universities to track and publicize hazing cases, as is the case in Pennsylvania and South Carolina.

Judson Horras leads the North American Interfraternity Conference, an organization made up of 58 fraternities. This group says it has long tried to reduce hazing and alcohol abuse within its chapters.

After the deaths of Foltz and Oakes, the interfraternity conference held a virtual town hall meant to provide fraternities with resources to avoid deaths, hazing and alcohol abuse within their chapters.

In the video, Horras says hazing and alcohol abuse are problems for most students and society, but "fraternities have a problem with hazing right now and alcohol combining."

Horras argues that fraternities can and do expel wayward members, but that's not enough. Instead, he says, universities ought to punish students who break hazing rules and that police and local attorneys should be prosecuting these young men.

Neither Bowling Green nor VCU have said publicly whether individual members of the fraternities had been suspended or faced disciplinary action, though both universities have suspended the fraternities. Bowling Green State even hired a former prosecutor to help in the investigation.

As for the fraternities, Delta Chi and Pi Kappa Alpha suspended the local chapters where Foltz and Oakes were pledging. Delta Chi in a statement encouraged its members to "cooperate with law enforcement enforcement investigative efforts." Meanwhile, Pi Kappa Alpha, also commonly known as PIKE, said in its statement that it does not tolerate hazing and promised consequences.

"As more details are confirmed, we will also pursue permanent suspension of Delta Beta Chapter as well as expulsion of all chapter members from the International Fraternity," PIKE said.

And Horras and the North American Interfraternity Conference have long supported new laws that define hazing as a felony. The group is supporting efforts in Ohio to pass Collin's Law, a new law that would make any hazing involving drugs or alcohol a felony.

“The student doesn’t care if the chapter gets shut down,” Horras said. “The student doesn’t care if they get expelled from the fraternity. There has to be individual accountability. They have to be criminally prosecuted. This behavior will not change until it’s treated like the crime that it is."

On the national level, Congress is considering two bills that would require colleges to track and publicly disclose the hazing incidents on their campuses. Both bills have bipartisan support, though they have been introduced before without passage.

But criminal enforcement relies on the willingness of police to enforce crimes and clarity around the circumstances leading to the deaths.

That information is often lacking, as Cindy Hipps knows well. She is the mother of Tucker Hipps, a 19-year-old who died under mysterious pledging for Sigma Phi Epsilon at Clemson. She and her family have still been unable to get clear information about what happened to their son, and he died in 2014.

Hipps said tougher laws are one of the many changes needed to prevent such deaths. She questioned, though, how effective they would be if no one is willing to talk about what happened.

"There are usually no arrests in the cases like Tucker's," she said. "So it's a moot point."

Families left with questions – not closure

Part of what is so damaging about young men dying in fraternities is the sense of betrayal it causes within families. The organizations are supposed to be shaping and guiding young men's lives, not killing them.

Joining the fraternity was supposed to be a landmark moment in Adam’s life. His mother, Linda, even bought him a new suit for the party where he would be accepted into the fraternity and meet his "Big," the older fraternity member meant to be a mentor.

The Oakes family is feeling that frustration, but they're also asking themselves what might have been. Adam had expressed interest in attending West Virginia University but ultimately decided to attend VCU because it was closer to home, which was welcome during the pandemic.

These days, though, they're mostly trying to get more information about what happened to Adam. They're still waiting on an autopsy, and they hope members of the fraternity will start talking.

"I need some answers," Eric Oakes said. "I just want to know what happened to my son. And why was he left on the ground like a piece of garbage to die? Why didn't someone call 911?"

Eric Oakes said he understands the fraternity may feel like brotherhood for three or four years, but living with a secret is a lifetime commitment. And, he asked, doesn't Adam's story deserve some kind of closure?

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fraternity deaths in Virginia and Ohio: Did COVID rules impact hazing?