Every new student at the University of Virginia attends an orientation where they break into small groups to discuss sexual consent and respect. October brings a flurry of public events pegged to Domestic Violence Awareness Month, and students are confronted with ubiquitous "red flag" posters. Then in April it's the weeklong Take Back the Night program, with students sharing their own harrowing stories of abuse.
The inadequacy of those anti-violence strategies materialized in graphic detail last week, with the discovery of 22-year-old Cockeysville native Yeardley Love dead in her off-campus apartment, allegedly murdered at the hand of a former boyfriend who acknowledges kicking in her bedroom door. Police say they are investigating the role that alcohol might have played in the killing and are exploring reports that the accused, George Huguely, had a history of violence and drunkenness.
"Obviously that [awareness campaign] didn't prevent this situation," said Nicole Eramo, assistant dean of students. "We are going to be looking at how can we make it easier for students to come forward if they have suspicions or concerns about a friend's relationship, or their own relationship."
Love's beating death early Monday has put a spotlight on "intimate partner" violence, which domestic abuse experts call a persistent problem on college campuses nationwide. The Virginia case has also focused new attention on college drinking and alcohol's role as a catalyst for violence.
And it has left school officials wondering what else they can do to protect their students.
In the days after Love died, University President John T. Casteen III has vowed to implement student background checks. Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell proposed a meeting to discuss whether passing new laws could offer a solution.
Others point out, however, that the most critical element in combating relationship violence will always be a willingness by students to speak out rather than remain silent — out of fear, complacency or shame. And that's hard to impose through policies or awareness campaigns.
"The problem is you can have 10,000 policies around it, but if nobody talks about [violence], they're not going to work because nobody is going to know," said Claire Kaplan, the longtime director of Sexual and Domestic Violence Services at the university's Women's Center.
Intimate partner conflict is the most common cause of assaults on American campuses, according to a report published last month by the U.S. Secret Service, Department of Education and FBI. It was the main factor in 34 percent of the incidents examined by the authors. The second and third most common factors were retaliation [14 percent] and was "refused advances or obsession with a target" [10 percent].
Kaplan acknowledged that acts of relationship violence will always happen on campuses, just as they will in society. "There's no way to 100 percent prevent it," she said. "But at the same time, if any one thing would have happened" — if Love had sought counseling, say, or a coach had known enough to speak to Huguely — "would it have changed the outcome?"
Charlottesville, Va., police are examining whether Love and Huguely, both lacrosse players on the verge of graduating, had a public altercation in the hours before her death. Police documents say Huguely, now charged with first-degree murder, has admitted that he kicked a hole in Love's bedroom door and shook her such that her head "repeatedly" hit the wall. Love, a graduate of Notre Dame Preparatory School in Towson, was found by a roommate, bloodied and bruised.
A lawyer for Huguely, 22, who grew up in Chevy Chase, has called Love's death "an accident with a tragic outcome."
Not aware of problems
University officials have said they were not aware of any problems between Huguely and Love, whose relationship had ended before last week's confrontation at her off-campus apartment. Nor were they aware of Huguely's arrest in 2008 when he drunkenly tussled with police in Lexington, Va., and had to be subdued with a Taser after reportedly telling a female police officer, "I'll kill all you bitches." He later pleaded guilty to public drunkenness and resisting arrest.
Casteen, who is retiring this summer after 20 years as Virginia's president, called it a system failure that the university did not learn of the episode. School policy calls for students to notify the university of such incidents, but police departments are not obligated to do the same, though many do.
Each morning, school administrators receive a report of police incidents involving students, said Allen Groves, the dean of students. But the information does not extend beyond the Charlottesville region. Lexington is 70 miles away.
McDonnell has requested a meeting with Casteen to discuss potential legislation, possibly including a requirement for police departments to report student arrests directly to the university. Casteen said the university will begin conducting background checks on students. "Particularly with regard to students who are athletes, we're going to conduct a screening," he said at a news conference last week.
Campus safety advocate Jonathan Kassa thinks Casteen would be wise to stop relying on self-reporting.
"If you have a serious offense with someone who has antisocial behavior who may feel entitled, the odds aren't exactly good that they're going to report themselves," said Kassa, executive director of Security on Campus Inc., a nonprofit organization in King of Prussia, Pa., that is dedicated to preventing violence at colleges and universities.
"This isn't to point a finger at U.Va.," Kassa said, but "what schools need to think about is a very nominal background check that needs to occur now and then on students."
One "small but simple" step, Kassa said, would be for judges to make it a condition of probation for college students to self-report a conviction. Huguely might have told Virginia administrators about the Lexington incident had a judge required it, Kassa said, since failure to do so would have carried legal consequences.
Although Security on Campus has endorsed background checks in the past, a colleague of Kassa's pointed to possible logistical limitations. "There are some major challenges with the availability of criminal background information, particularly for first-year students," said S. Daniel Carter, director of public policy for the organization. Many students' records, if there are any, would be from offenses committed as juveniles, and thus sealed from public disclosure, he said.
Carter said Security on Campus has "some very longstanding issues" with the University of Virginia administration. About five years ago the nonprofit group filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education about the school's sexual assault policy. In 2008, the department concurred, concluding that U.Va.'s policy of requiring survivors of alleged sexual assault to abide by a confidentiality policy was "inconsistent with the letter and spirit" of federal law.
The university still has vocal critics, including Massachusetts attorney Wendy Murphy, who specializes in gender-equity cases under the federal Title IX law. In an interview Saturday, she criticized the university for requiring that sexual assault claims meet a standard of "clear and convincing" guilt rather than the lower burden — "preponderance of the evidence" — recommended by the federal government.
While Murphy said she did not know the facts of Love's dealings with Huguely, she said such policies foster a culture that makes women reluctant to report sexual or relationship abuse, "and a sense on campus that it's not worth it to tell anyone because nothing much is going to happen."
'We would have acted'
Kaplan of the Women's Center said the lack of previous knowledge in the Love case is haunting to her. "If we'd known something, we would have acted," she said. "In this kind of instance, one would involve his coach, and the athletic department, making sure that her safety is paramount."
Kaplan said the university can issue "no contact" orders, find new housing for a student and even place someone in a shelter for battered women, if need be.
She said she has to think that some people on campus noticed problems between Huguely and Love. "I am sure people knew he was being a jerk to her. I don't see how anybody could hide that. How much more did they know? I don't know."
She said she wishes the university could have helped Huguely, too. "We failed him since who knows how far back," she said. "This is a young man who's had serious problems."
Weeks after the 2008 arrest in Lexington, Huguely had an angry verbal altercation with his father off the Atlantic coast of Florida and police were called, according to records from the Palm Beach County Sheriff's Office. The Washington Post, quoting unidentified teammates on Huguely's lacrosse team, reported Friday that he had attacked a sleeping teammate in 2009, leaving his face bruised.
Eramo, the assistant dean of students, said when university officials find evidence of violence, they typically call police. "I have had a couple situations this past year where I've done that," she said.
If a student gets a threatening e-mail or reports an altercation but does not want to involve the police, the university can issue a no-contact order. She said the school issues about 10 each semester.
'Relationship violence' evolves
With relationship violence, every situation is different, said Eramo. "In many cases, it starts with disrespectful talk and moves along to physical violence," she said. "People, in general, will shrug off a slap in the face as, oh, I made him angry or her angry, or he was drunk. 'It was only this one time.' There's a lot of self-blame in that, and shame. People don't want to come forward."
Adding to the challenge, she said, is the veil of secrecy. "We'll have situations where an abuser will hit somebody where they know the bruising won't show. It's very hidden, behind closed doors."
Alcohol often plays a role. Eramo chairs the Sexual Assault Board, the group that hears sexual assault cases within the context of the university's judicial system. "The cases we see pretty much across the board do involve alcohol," she said.
"Alcohol isn't going to completely change a person, but one of the first things to go is your judgment," said Susan Bruce, director of the university's Center for Alcohol and Substance Education. Bruce said that every sports team has two members who are designated "student athlete mentors" and said that coaches can set more stringent alcohol policies if they choose.
In a promising sign, Bruce said that surveys show alcohol consumption by Virginia students has decreased over the past 10 years.
Eramo said it's too early to say how the university might revamp its awareness and outreach around relationship violence.
"Honestly, I think that's what we'll be talking about in the next days and weeks," she said. "We're obviously still in crisis mode, trying to get students through the shock and grief."
Since Love's death, students have been "coming in and talking about this issue a great deal over these past several days. There's a tremendous awareness of the issue right now. We want to harness some of that energy — without blaming students in the community who are probably feeling very guilty now about what they can or should have done."