Universities looking for answers to 'intimate partner' violence

Background checks and new laws pondered in wake of lacrosse player killing

May 09, 2010|By Scott Calvert and Tricia Bishop, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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