Last year, the deaths of Yeardley Love and Morgan Harrington intensified concerns about safety among students and within the Charlottesville community. This fall, a series of assaults near Grounds has raised similar concerns.
The University community, in collaboration with Charlottesville police, is addressing safety issues with increased police presence, education and student activism.
A new, student-run initiative, “Let’s Get Grounded,” has campaigned for greater vigilance and encouraged students to report potentially unsafe situations. This initiative has already provided training for more than 1,000 students.
Virginia Magazine asked Dean of Students Allen W. Groves (Law ’90) several questions about issues related to student safety.
Q: A number of students have been assaulted on or near Grounds this semester. Is crime against students on the rise? What steps are being taken by the University to address crime and help ensure that students are safe?
A: It is difficult at this juncture to know for certain if criminal activity on and near Grounds has actually increased, or if we are simply seeing a combination of more reporting and a compressed time frame within which isolated incidents have occurred. It does appear to me that there may have been a recent increase in this activity somewhat closer to Grounds. University Police Department Chief Mike Gibson and Charlottesville Police Department Chief Tim Longo have stepped up police patrols in the area, something I have personally observed on two late-night walk-arounds in the Corner area. There is very strong cooperation between the two police departments on this issue. As of this interview [Oct. 19], at least two alleged perpetrators are now in custody. We are also focusing on getting word out to students whenever any incidents are reported to police and we are stressing steps students can take to enhance their own safety around Grounds. My office’s off-Grounds housing manager is also engaging local landlords on issues such as lighting and reducing overgrown hedges.
Q: What are the underlying concerns that UVA has when it comes to protecting its students?
A: Our police cannot be everywhere at once, so a strong commitment to personal safety is critical. There is a feeling of invincibility that comes with being a young adult. I joke with my students that I miss that feeling very much. However, what it means is that they often lack the intuitive concern for safety that those of us who are older feel. We are working to educate students on the dangers of walking alone late at night, of walking with headphones on or while distracted by texting, of becoming intoxicated to the point of being unaware of your surroundings or unable to protect yourself, and the importance of staying on more heavily traversed and well-lit streets and walkways. I have personally observed students go down into the dark ravine where the train tracks run just to cut five minutes from their late-night walk home, which is extremely reckless to me—and I have told them this. Most criminals are looking for what they perceive to be the easiest target, and we have to get our students to think about personal safety in this way.
Q: Seven UVA students died last year, including Yeardley Love, whose death was widely covered in the national media. How does the University attempt to help students cope with these tragedies?
A: Most of those seven deaths occurred far away from Grounds. But anytime a student passes, whether by illness, accident or other means, it has a ripple effect across Grounds. Students who were close with the deceased student; those who shared a class with him or her; those who may be in the same fraternity/sorority, student organization or club; or those who may have once simply lived with the student in a suite [during their] first year often feel the loss quite strongly. Even students who did not know the deceased student may still feel an emotional impact, especially if the facts are particularly disturbing to them. This was certainly true in the Harrington and Love cases. We try to identify those who may be most directly impacted and then I or one of my associate or assistant deans will reach out to them to offer support. We also communicate with students regarding the availability of counseling center resources and other student support services. Lastly, for those who may have been most directly impacted, we work with the student’s academic dean to get word to professors and request reasonable accommodations and support in that area.
Q: There is a perception among some that the University attempts to sweep negative events under the rug. How do you reply to that?
A: It is simply untrue. I liken it to the objectively false statement I occasionally hear to the effect that the University’s Sexual Assault Board has never required a student to leave UVA after being found guilty. That is plainly and demonstrably false. Of course, I also hear from some people that we err by overreporting incidents, and thus make students less likely to pay attention to the most serious ones. The bottom line is that we are strongly motivated to do everything we can to make students aware of facts that might keep them safer. I have yet to be involved in a conversation with anyone on Grounds in which it was suggested that we not disclose something because it might embarrass the University. As an alumnus, I love this University, but as dean of students, my primary loyalty is to my students.