University Community Moved From Mourning to Action in Wake of Student's Death

February 02, 2012

 February 3, 2012 — In the immediate wake of fourth-year student Yeardley Love's death in May 2010, a shocked University of Virginia community mourned the loss of one of its own.

In the 21 months since, that mourning has evolved into sustained efforts to increase student safety and encourage open communication among students, faculty and staff, according to University leaders. These efforts touch all levels of University life and range from extensive student-led training on how to identify potentially dangerous situations to a successful new reporting system for students to notify administrators if they are charged with a crime.

"Nearly two years ago, the University community came together to grieve the loss of fourth-year student Yeardley Love just weeks before her graduation," President Teresa A. Sullivan said. "In the coming days, George Huguely, a former student charged with her death, will stand trial. We leave the judgment in this case to the justice system. What we can do is continue to explore the difficult questions around what it takes to become a truly caring community, one in which each of us accepts responsibility for one another. To do that would be a tribute to Yeardley's life and the way she lived it.

On May 5, 2010 – just days after Love's death – thousands of students, faculty and staff gathered on Grounds for a student-organized vigil. Current fourth-year student Dan Morrison, then the Student Council's director of university relations, helped organize that event.

"I think given the collective feeling of tragedy experienced by the whole student body, it was very important for us to give people an opportunity to sit down and emotionally take in what had happened," said Morrison, a fourth-year McIntire School of Commerce student who is now Student Council president. "I remember hearing sobbing from every corner of the Amphitheater. I think we really needed that opportunity."

Over the summer that followed, a group of 25 student leaders remained on Grounds and began working with the Office of the Vice President and Chief Student Affairs Officer to develop what would become the Let's Get Grounded campaign. It has trained more than 1,500 students, faculty and staff to combat what students dubbed the "bystander effect," which "results in the acceptance of disrespectful behavior among peers, including but not limited to acts of bias, derogatory comments, drug and alcohol abuse and violence," according to the organization's mission.

Patricia M. Lampkin, vice president and chief student affairs officer, said Love's death and efforts such as Let's Get Grounded have made many students more aware of how to evaluate and appropriately report concerns.

"I immediately began to notice a difference in the types of calls and notifications our office might get from peers and others," Lampkin said. "There's a balance of not blowing something out of proportion, but paying close attention to concerns so we might get in front a potential problem. Part of the training also conveys that students don't need to solve a situation they observe; they can accomplish something simply by helping to identify it."

Lampkin's office began sending letters to faculty members at the beginning of each semester, reminding them of the resources available for reporting concerns about student issues observed in class, she said.

In August 2010, the University announced a new process for students to report if they had been charged with a crime. Since 2004, University policy required students to disclose any arrests to University administrators within 72 hours. However, University officials realized that Huguely had made no such disclosure when he was arrested in Lexington in 2008.

University administrators implemented a system in which students are reminded of the policy and asked about any unreported arrests or convictions – excluding minor traffic violations – when they log in to use the University's secure NetBadge gateway to access services like U.Va. email at the beginning of each fall semester, Dean of Students Allen Groves said.

"We wanted to achieve the desired result in a way that is efficient, effective and consistent with the culture of the honor system here," he said. "We are saying to students, 'On your honor, we are trusting you to give us truthful information, and you are trusting us to treat you fairly after we receive it.'"

Discovery of a student who failed to disclose a charge could result in a referral to a student panel of the University Judiciary Committee, and possibly to the Honor Committee, which administers only one sanction: expulsion.

Since the reporting system was implemented, less than 2 percent of registering students have reported an arrest, Groves said.

"Where this system becomes especially relevant, in particular with regard to alcohol abuse, is when a student has a prior or subsequent offense," he said. "If we know there is a pattern of incidents involving alcohol, we're going to engage that student around making better choices."

The University's law enforcement community has also increased outreach efforts to students in the wake of Love's death, said Officer Angela Tabler, the department's crime prevention coordinator. Those efforts include more police-sponsored self-defense seminars and efforts to make students aware of the Silent Watch Program, which allows them to report concerns anonymously.

The department made safety presentations to more than 18,000 people during 2011, including to students, guests of the University, parents and other groups, Tabler said. Requests for such presentations have risen significantly since May 2010, she said.

"We want to make sure our students know it's OK to call the police," she said.

In 2010, Tabler also became the department's first director of victim/witness assistance. In that role, she is available as a resource to any student who has been a victim or a witness to a crime. That might mean lending a compassionate ear and taking an incident report, telling a student about the process of taking out a protective order, or escorting a victim or witness to court dates.

In September 2010, the University came together for a "Day of Dialogue," a series of discussions centered around addressing the spiritual and emotional aspects of mourning, defining characteristics of a caring community and highlighting practical resources for safety and personal responsibility.

Afterward, a desire on the part of many students, faculty and staff to continue the tone and theme of those discussions led to Dialogue Across UVA, said fourth-year College of Arts & Sciences student Pemberton Heath, who helped organize that effort.

Though Dialogue Across UVA grew from the Day of Dialogue, it has expanded into a series of ongoing discussions on issues that reach beyond Love's death, Heath said.

"This provided a safe space where faculty, staff and students could all come together to talk about what kind of community they wanted to live in, beyond the events surrounding that incident," Heath said.

The Day of Dialogue also contributed to the development of a new Human Resources initiative. The forthcoming Respect@UVA program will serve as a focus for the University's efforts to maintain a dignified and respectful work environment.

As with any tragedy, the powerful and immediate emotions that surfaced in the wake of Yeardley Love's death have changed as time has gone by, University leaders said. Only half of the current undergraduate students were here when Love died; in another two years, those students will also have graduated and moved on. The challenge, students and administrators said, is to make sure the institutional changes outlast the grief and that the University remains a safe and caring place for its students, faculty and staff.

"Even though those emotional scars won't exist for the students that come here in future generations, I do think the administrative processes that have been put in place, such as reporting crimes and the support networks, will serve as reminders of how this place responded the way it did, " Morrison said.

— By Rob Seal

Media Contact

Carol S. Wood

Associate Vice President President's Office