Marymount alumna advocates for anti-hazing legislation in Virginia and beyond

Marymount alumna advocates for anti-hazing legislation in Virginia and beyond

Courtney White ‘23 never thought she would lead a nonprofit, let alone one that would impact state legislation. But in April 2021, she found herself at the helm of the Love Like Adam Foundation after the tragic death of her cousin, Adam Oakes, due to hazing. 

On February 27, 2021, the 19-year-old freshman at Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) died of alcohol poisoning after being hazed during a Delta Chi fraternity event. At the time, White worked for Fairfax County Public Schools (FCPS) and was completing her Doctorate of Education in Leadership and Organizational Innovation at Marymount University. 

The loss was a devastating blow to White and her extended family. 

Marymount alumna advocates for anti-hazing legislation in Virginia and beyond
 Adam Oakes was 19 years old when he died as a result of hazing

“My aunt and uncle were crushed. They had just lost their only child and the whole family was hurting,” White said. “Adam was such a kind spirit and had such a big heart. We couldn’t understand how no one called an ambulance or got him help.”

In the wake of this tragic event, White decided to stand up to hazing culture. She established the Love Like Adam Foundation two months after Oakes died and advocated for legislation that penalized hazing.

“Adam was just a young, impressionable guy,” White said. “If he had known more about the dangers of hazing, I don’t think he would’ve participated in the fraternity event. We want to make sure that other students are well informed about hazing and can make smart decisions about what organizations they join.”

In 2022, Virginia State Senators Jennifer McClellan and Jennifer Boysko helped pass Adam’s Law, which made hazing prevention education mandatory for all Virginia college students.  

“There has never been any required hazing prevention education for students,” White said. “Most have no idea how dangerous hazing can really be or how important it is to call for help if there’s suspected alcohol poisoning.”

Between Oakes’s death and the passage of Adam’s Law, White had been working on her doctoral dissertation about the effectiveness of hazing prevention education. She built a program for statewide hazing prevention seminars using research and data-driven results.

When the program was finished, White and her nonprofit began meeting students at Virginia Tech, Longwood University, University of Lynchburg and VCU. She has since adapted the program for high school students after learning about the prevalence of hazing culture there, and helped pass another law that requires evidence-based hazing prevention education for high schools starting this July.

“It’s happening in bands, in clubs, in sports. It’s happening behind closed doors so we don’t see how much it is hurting students,” White said. 

Additionally, Adam’s Law institutes bystander immunity to encourage students to seek help for friends who may be experiencing medical emergencies following alcohol consumption. 

“We want to encourage students to seek medical attention for their friends without fear of getting in trouble for drinking underage,” White said. “Over 40 people went in and out of the house the night Adam died, and not a single one of them called for help. If they knew they had bystander immunity, one of them would likely have called for help and Adam might still be here.”

Beyond mandated education and bystander immunity, Adam’s Law seeks to hold institutions responsible for conduct on their campuses. 

“Adam’s Law requires Virginia universities to report hazing incidents on their websites and on a national hazing database,” White explained. “They also have to be more transparent about the activities of on-campus organizations. Students deserve to know what they’re signing up for and universities have an obligation to tell them.”

Marymount alumna advocates for anti-hazing legislation in Virginia and beyond

But she recognizes that universities can only do so much, and real change begins with students. That’s why each year, the Love Like Adam Foundation awards college scholarships to Virginia high school seniors who embody the love and kindness that Oakes was known for during his life. 

White hopes some of the foundation’s new initiatives can teach university administrators how to combat hazing culture. On June 4, the Love Like Adam Foundation co-hosted the inaugural Virginia Hazing Prevention Summit at VCU, with 100 administrators from universities across Virginia coming together to learn about hazing prevention. With presentations, talks and powerful stories from other family members of hazing victims, the event was hugely successful in White’s eyes. 

“This is real. It’s prevalent,” White said. “I’m hoping with the summit we can really get that message out — but then also tap into all the expertise that’s already in and around our state.”

Having accomplished so much in the past three years, White hopes the foundation will soon provide hazing prevention education to institutions nationwide. 

“We’ve already begun to expand outside of Virginia,” she said. “We gave presentations at the University of South Carolina and the University of Tennessee this year, and they want to have us back because the presentation was so impactful for their students.” 

Although balancing a job at FCPS, raising four kids, building a nonprofit and advocating for hazing prevention legislation hasn’t been easy, White credits Marymount’s Ed.D. program with much of her courage and determination.

“It was thanks to my job and Marymount’s program that I had the strength to keep seeking justice for Adam,” she reflected. “The classes I was taking on ethics and leadership lit a fire under me to be an advocate for Adam, for my kids and for all the other kids out there in the community.”

Even though the nonprofit and her new anti-hazing mission were born from a difficult experience, White says telling Oakes’s story to students has been a healing experience. 

“Every time we present somewhere, we get to share Adam with people,” White said. “His legacy lives on in every one of those students who goes on to make positive choices. Whenever I finish a presentation, I always tell the students to go love like Adam. Because if we all love like Adam, the world will be a better place.”