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A Letter from the President

May 7, 2010


Dear Parents of our Students:

Early Monday morning, Yeardley Love, a fourth-year student from Cockeysville, Md., died in her off-campus apartment here in Charlottesville. The police have charged George Huguely, a fourth-year student from Chevy Chase, Md., with first-degree murder. He is currently in custody at the Charlottesville/Albemarle jail. This week we have watched our students struggle to comprehend what has happened. Since Monday we have been working steadily to meet their (and our own) needs to grieve in appropriate ways and to understand how such a death could have occurred in a community of young people.

We are providing individual counseling services as requested. We can provide more if you will alert us to needs that you as a family know. Please send a note to me at my email address (jtc@virginia.edu) if we can help. Because students have begun taking exams this week, we are also doing what is possible to protect our students from distractions. Media personnel became more intrusive in their approaches to students than seemed appropriate to me just as exams began. I asked for their cooperation so that students can complete their work. By and large, media personnel have cooperated, and I am grateful to them for that.

I am writing now because your daughters and sons will complete their exams soon, and then in most cases come home to you. This letter includes information about what we have done this week and advice consistent with the best experts we have found on steps you might take to support your children as they bring home their own personal responses to what has happened. Many of our students are grieving. Many are angry. Many are struggling to grasp the possibility of what they (and I) see as the unthinkable brutality that ended the life of one of their own. As I do, they see the University as the safe place that belongs to them. This death did not occur inside the University, and the address where it occurred is private property. Nonetheless, they and I consider the address part of their community—the place where they ought to be safe. Young people are strong, and our students are uncommonly strong. I hope that the following notes are unnecessary for your family. Yet I feel obligated to pass along this information. I appreciate your reading it.

On first learning that a student had died early Monday, I wrote to our students and others here (faculty members, advisors, et al) to provide the information available to us. As we received more information, we sent additional advisories. During the afternoon, the Charlottesville police released Yeardley Love's and George Huguely's names along with information on the charge of first-degree murder. Other messages to students announced the availability of counseling and other support for those who needed those services, and of course of the vigil convened by the Student Council President on Wednesday night. Along with student leaders, I spoke to the students at the vigil, which was held in the McIntire Amphitheater. Relevant documents, including my statement at the vigil, appear at http://www.virginia.eduspeeches.html.

Several University entities have assisted students this week. These include the Office of the Dean of Students, which took lead responsibility, the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), and the Women's Center. Several students contacted me directly. Many asked for help. To my knowledge, all who asked have been provided access to and time with competent professionals.

The following is advice that may seem commonsensical to some, but that parents have asked me to provide. If your daughter's or son's mood or demeanor seems to you different from what you are accustomed to seeing, or uncharacteristically erratic, please pay extra attention. Sensible information on signs of overwhelming grief or depression in young adults appears on the web and in readily-available books, and I have found professionals with whom I have worked this week eager to provide counsel on what might be effective now. Common signs of depression include: changes in sleep and eating habits; increased irritability; withdrawal from others; difficulty sustaining concentration; repetition of sad or stressful thoughts; constant worry; predominant sadness; and physical symptoms, which are said often to appear in the forms of fatigue, anxiety, frequent headaches, muscle soreness, and gastrointestinal distress. I hope that you will seek help if you notice these or similar signs of distress in your child. If you sense that your child has thoughts of harming herself, get help right away. Call 911, call a clergy member, call a physician whom you know or whom a neighbor or friend identifies as capable and accessible, call a family member or trusted friend.

Signs of involvement in an abusive relationship may be more complex. I am told that they may include social withdrawal of the partner who is under duress—your daughter may deal with a problem of this kind by withdrawing from all attachments, including her attachments to family; efforts by one partner to seclude or control the other (by criticizing mutual friends, by restricting or taking access to passwords, cell phones, computers, keys, money, and by sundry tactics to control the other—behavior that may be in a healthy relationship playful or flirtatious may turn into something quite different when one partner sets out to dominate the other); frequent and intense arguing; and bruises or other marks on the body that might signal physical abuse. A person who is enduring this abuse by a partner may not exhibit whatever demeanor one might expect—may not be, for example, shy or meek. Even young women who appear socially comfortable or confident may be experiencing mistreatment. As I have, you may need professional advice now in order to understand what you see in your child's behavior. So please be alert to these signals, both subtle and obvious, and seek professional guidance if you need it. Take action if you sense that your child may need you or some other adult backer while in or extracting herself (or himself, if that is the case) from an abusive connection.

I spoke on Wednesday evening as clearly as I know how to do about what is to be learned from Yeardley's death and done to protect others. I talked about the reality of evil, of abusive relationships here—in a place that many students and many of us (you and I) may see as a secure Garden of Eden where young people can grow and learn without fearing harm. I urged them to remember Yeardley and her death with righteous anger, to seize on the moral outrage necessary to the work of assuring that no woman, no person in this place or in the larger communities to which all of us belong need either fear for her safety or suffer violence for any reason. I encouraged them to speak up for themselves and for their friends when they sense or experience threats to their safety; to act decisively when they see or hear about abuse or violence among their friends and classmates; to seek help (from deans and advisors, from the police, from their professors, from me) if they are involved in a relationship that becomes unhealthy or toxic, and thus threatens them.

I am asking you now to reiterate these messages or whatever seems most constructive to your daughters and sons when they come home in a few days, and to be especially alert to possible signs that your child may be involved in a damaging relationship. This concern is for both women and men. I have seen no division between women and men here this week: students of both sexes have recognized together that this issue involves them. Our students, your daughters and sons, and those who came before them, have been my surrogate family for two decades now. As I know you do, I cherish them. Ordinarily, I am able to report what we have done to address a need. This time, I must ask you to do what must be done now for your own child.

As parents of students, you belong to an extended family that includes every member of our University community. When one of our own dies—and especially when one of our own dies in such a violent, senseless way—we grieve as family members grieve for a lost loved one. Just as family members lean on each other in difficult times and rely on each other for support and solace, let us rely on each other now. Let us see to it that the things your daughters and sons learn here become and remain true in the world to which they go after they leave this place.

John Casteen