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Could U-Va. have prevented tragedy?

Following the death of a student, apparently at the hands of another, University of Virginia President John T. Casteen III is asking the obvious questions: what did officials know of George Huguely's past behavior, what should they have known, and might they have somehow prevented the death of Yeardley Love?

Casteen said in a news conference Wednesday that school officials were unaware of Huguely's prior arrest for a drunken and aggressive encounter between the six-foot-two Huguely and a female officer almost a foot shorter in the college town of Lexington, Va. The struggle ended with Huguely Tasered and handcuffed.

In fact, university officials should have known, at least in theory. Huguely should have told them, under a school policy that requires students to report any encounters with police. Huguely evidently didn't follow that policy.

Here is Casteen's own account of his internal inquiries this week:

"I asked first of all whether our police department received any notice of that arrest, and the answer was no. Second, I asked [Athletic Director] Craig [Littlepage] if the coaches had any knowledge of it or whether it had been disclosed, and the answer was no, also. Finally, I asked whether students are required to self-report arrests, convictions, and so on. And there is, in fact, a regulation in the student code of regulations that requires that kind of report."

A quick analysis of what had transpired convinced Casteen that "there are a number of gaps in this system that concern me." He said the school would begin, at a minimum, to screen students -- and not just athletes -- against a state law enforcement database before each semester.

And what of Huguely's prior behavior toward Love? There was at least one public incident worth note. From today's Post story:

Two months before Love's death, two current and one former University of North Carolina lacrosse players intervened to separate Huguely from Love at a party on the U-Va. campus in Charlottesville, according to two sources with knowledge of the incident. The UNC players were in Charlottesville visiting with friends.

Did anyone report that to someone in authority? Casteen clearly wants his students to do so. He pleaded with them, at a candlelight vigil Wednesday night, to "Come talk to me. Seek support that belongs to you, because you belong to us."

Large universities such as U-Va. typically have threat assessment teams, empaneled for the purpose of predicting who on campus might pose a threat to others.

But the Love slaying falls under the category of relationship violence, and it's a difficult sort for college officials to predict, according to higher education leaders.

"This is that very narrow alley of relationship violence, and that is a very difficult kind to anticipate," said Gwen Dungy, executive director of the industry association NASPA -- Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education.

University officials, she said, "can't see what goes on in a personal relationship. That's where those friends and family and faculty and people in a residence hall can serve as a campus-wide threat assessment team."

Huguely told police he sent Love e-mails, and he took pains to grab the computer from her room as he left her for the last time, according to the police account.

The content of the e-mails is, so far, a matter of speculation.

"As far as we know, there wasn't anything other than this drunkenness event at a distant location" to suggest Huguely posed any threat to anyone, said Ada Meloy, senior counsel to the American Council on Education, an umbrella higher education association.

There's a limit to how far a college can be expected to go in gathering intelligence on its students, Meloy said. And Lexington is, after all, nearly 100 miles from Charlottesville.

"There wouldn't be some expectation that a college should be perusing national arrest records," she said -- although Casteen's institution seems to have volunteered to begin perusing state records.

The Love slaying took place in an off-campus apartment, "and such things are even harder to control than things that happen on campus," she said.

Meloy said she believes U-Va. has been "forthright" thus far in sharing the information it has and can legally provide on the case, and that it has handled the matter "as expeditiously and compassionately as it could."

Some of the measures U-Va. has taken to protect students could have unintended consequences, said Barry Spodak, a national authority on threat assessment. He zeroed in on the decade-old policy that forbids the male lacrosse team, of which Huguely was a member, from drinking more than once a week, with stiff penalties.

Could such a rule have the effect of pushing the drinking underground?

"When formulating rules and policies about student behavior, it's wise to keep in mind whether a proposed policy will inhibit students and staff from reporting worrisome behavior," he said.

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By Daniel de Vise  |  May 6, 2010; 12:32 PM ET
Categories:  Administration , Athletics , Crime , Students  | Tags: George Huguely, UVA lacrosse murder, UVA lacrosse slaying, UVA slaying, Yeardley Love  
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I don't see what the school could do unless they had some sort of notice of a problem and it looks like they didn't. The school's president and coaches can't babysit the entire student body and short of scanning state arrest reports every Monday morning I don't see how they could have known about the previous incident Huguely was involved in. If it comes out that a coach was aware of threats or violence towards Love I'd change my mind but right now there isn't any evidence of that.

Posted by: calgrl75 | May 6, 2010 3:43 PM | Report abuse

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