George Huguely trial highlights alcohol abuse among college students

February 22, 2012

CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. — There's little question that George Huguely V, the former University of Virginia student on trial for murder, had a problem with alcohol.

He had been arrested twice for drinking-related infractions, one of them violent, in his early 20s. And he admits to consuming at least 15 drinks _ and likely had more, witnesses said _ the day he confronted Yeardley Love at her off-campus apartment in 2010, assaulting her so severely she later died, according to prosecutors.

But trial testimony over the past two weeks from witnesses, most of them former U.Va. students, has repeatedly shown that Huguely, now 24, was part of a college culture where some young people drink before working on papers, "pregame" before going to bars and drink to get drunk almost every time.

"It's just an epidemic" nationwide, said Mike Gimbel, who runs a substance abuse education program, based at St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, Md., for athletes and Maryland students. He gave a presentation at Love's alma mater, the Notre Dame Preparatory School, after her death.

The alcohol abuse starts in high school, with kids imbibing on the weekends, and frequently grows out of control once they're out from under their parents' supervision, prevention experts said. They added that shows like MTV's "Real World" and "Jersey Shore" and annual lists of top party colleges add fuel to the fire, feeding an impression that everyone gets wasted all the time.

That perception is actually worse than the reality, according to national drinking data. And that's part of the problem, treatment professionals said, because moderate drinkers feel pressure to keep pace with the so-called party animals.

Alcoholic exploits make for good gossip, and they tend to spread fast and wide, said Susan Bruce, director of the Gordie Center for Substance Abuse Prevention, which is based on the Charlottesville campus and which studies trends throughout the country. Excessive drinking "seems normal," she said, "because it's dramatic and it gets a lot of attention and it makes it sound like everyone's doing it."

While it's not everyone, it's still a lot. Roughly 80 percent of college students drink, and half of them "engage in heavy episodic consumption," also known as binge drinking, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.

Combine that with the negative consequences _ increased risks for violence and sexual assault, class failures, arrests, injuries and embarrassment _ and some educators are now cautioning against sending teens away to school, where they can't be easily watched over.

"For the first time in my career," said Gimbel, "I'm advising parents not to send their kids off to college, because it's nothing but a big party."

Disturbing statistics

While some campus education and prevention initiatives, like those offered by U.Va.'s Gordie Center, have helped reduce alcohol abuse and the associated consequences among college students over the past decade or so, the national numbers are still disturbing.

An NIAAA report released in 2009 shows that alcohol-related deaths of people ages 18 to 24 were up 14 percent to 1,825 in 2005, compared with roughly 1,605 in 1998. And the number of students reporting a DWI arrest skyrocketed 46 percent during the same time period, to 3.36 million from 2.3 million.

Who's doing the drinking varies, but there are representatives from all groups, educators said: jocks, Greeks, nerds and socialites alike. Athletes, along with fraternity and sorority members, tend to be considered the stereotypical abusers, however, with each falling prey to peer pressure.

"The thing about athletes is the team is so important," said Bruce, and that puts a lot of stress on students to fit in.

Studies, including a 2001 examination by the Harvard School of Public Health, have shown that athletes tend to drink more than their non-athlete peers and to experience more negative effects.

And among athletes, lacrosse players are among the biggest partiers, according to a National Collegiate Athletic Association report published this year looking at substance use among college athletes. The report was based on responses to the association's 2009 survey of 20,474 student athletes in 23 championship sports.

The survey found that male and female lacrosse players are more likely than any other kind of athlete to take amphetamines like Adderall, which many at U.Va., including Love, were prescribed for attention deficit disorder. And roughly 95 percent of the country's male lacrosse players drank, the study claimed. Among women players, 85 percent consumed alcohol.

Both Love and Huguely were lifelong lacrosse players, and they traveled among a tight-knit crew of other athletes, many of whom grew up together in the same Mid-Atlantic prep school circles. Several witnesses during Huguely's trial said they had known Love for years.

Chris Clements, one of Huguely's team members, met Love when they were pre-teens. Both attended private schools in the Baltimore area, he at St. Paul's School and she at Notre Dame.

"I was very close with Yeardley," Clements said, as Huguely, who went to the Landon School in Bethesda, looked on.

Intervention didn’t happen

Huguely is accused of kicking in Love's door to confront her about their mutual infidelities one night after binge drinking. He wound up throwing her around her bedroom, prosecutors say, until her eye was black, her nose was bloody, and her brain was bruised. A roommate found her body roughly two hours later, about 2:15 on the morning of May 3, 2010.

His attorneys say her death was not caused by Huguely's actions alone, but in combination with the alcohol she had consumed.

Clements and several other lacrosse players said Huguely's drinking was out of hand by then. He was getting loaded three to four nights per week, neglecting his responsibilities and being generally "belligerent," they said. In February of that year, Huguely got drunk at his own party, wrestled Love to the ground, putting her in a choke hold, one witness said. Huguely told police he was too drunk to remember what happened that night.

"It needed to stop," Clements testified. He and some others had talked about performing some kind of intervention, but they never did.

Intervening is easier said than done for a lot of students, substance abuse workers said. They're not trained to recognize trouble signs, they feel awkward and worry they'll lose a friend if they raise tough subjects, and they often don't want to tell others because they don't want to get in trouble themselves.

"The fact is, these kids go to parties, they watch their friends pass out or they watch their friends almost die from alcohol poisoning, and they don't do anything about it," said Gimbel, the alcohol educator. "They write on them with magic marker."

Huguely, whose father faces drinking-and-driving charges in Montgomery County, Md., has a history of getting into trouble because of alcohol. He was arrested in 2007 when he was 20 for being a minor in possession, and again in 2008, shortly after turning 21, for public intoxication; he was Tasered in that instance for threatening to kill a female officer, police said.

"From my reading of Huguely, it seems like he had a self-control problem that manifested itself in a variety of ways, substance abuse, intimate partner violence, and just kind of being a pretty reckless guy," said Daniel Webster, a professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health who has been following media reports of the case.

Webster has studied assaults among lovers, particularly lethal violence, and said alcohol is a frequent factor, and a potential, if partial, cause of it _ a debated belief in the medical community.

"We know that alcohol abuse impairs judgment, it makes it harder to control one's impulses in certain circumstances," Webster said. "So I think it does play a causal role."

He also believes that alcohol treatment could reduce violent incidents, but adds that he's part of a minority who thinks that way. It took a long time for such attacks, typically man on woman, to be considered crimes, and women's rights advocates are reluctant to link abuse to a disease like alcoholism, Webster said.

"When we start to think about diseased people, people with an illness, some of us want to cut them some slack. How can you hold somebody accountable for their disease?" he said. "But I don't think it's an either-or scenario. I think you can hold people accountable for their behavior."

Jury: Was alcohol a factor?

The jury in Huguely's trial is expected to consider Huguely's alcohol use when determining whether he intended to kill her. They could find that the alcohol impaired his judgment so much, that he was incapable of the premeditated murder he's charged with.

He had been drinking almost nonstop the Sunday he went to Love's apartment, where she too was intoxicated.

Love, 22, and her roommates had gone out to lunch that day and had at least one pitcher of beer, even though they had homework to complete, and they went out again that evening to celebrate a friend's birthday. They were planning to go back out again after 10 p.m., but Love stayed home, saying she was tired.

Separate court records place her blood alcohol level at the time of the altercation, which occurred shortly before midnight on May 2, 2010, at between 0.14 and 0.18 percent _ roughly twice Virginia's legal driving limit.

At that level, she would have "had severe impairment of her" judgment, decision-making and reasoning skills, a toxicologist testified during the trial. And her "emotional control" would be compromised. Huguely's defense team appeared to suggest last week that Love might have been so drunk that she passed out and drowned on her own bloody nose.

When Love's roommate found her, she reported a possible alcohol overdose to 911 operators, not knowing what else to immediately make of Love's unconscious, though bruised, state.

Love's death stunned the U.Va. community and campuses across the country, which were suddenly faced with the reality that even prestigious universities and privileged students aren't immune to alcohol abuse and violence.

The University of Virginia quickly launched a bystander action program that trained students and staff to intervene if they're concerned about someone. Roughly 10 percent of the school's 14,000 undergraduates volunteered for the program that first year, said Bruce, of the Gordie Center.

Her institution is now named after Lynn Gordon Bailey Jr., an 18-year-old who died during a 2004 hazing incident at the University of Colorado in Boulder, after merging with the Gordie Foundation recently. But it began in 1987 as the Institute for Substance Abuse Studies.

At one point, the university was outpacing the national average numbers when it came to drinking, Bruce said, but that's changed in the past 10 years, with fewer drinking-and-driving incidents and negative consequences being reported.

"Most students are drinking in a moderate way," Bruce said. And even those who drink to excess are generally taken care of, U.Va. students say.

"They're going out with friends who take care of them," said Chris Leslie, a 20-year-old from Vienna, Va., who was having a pizza dinner with friends last week. "There are obviously aberrations, which is why there's this story (about Love and Huguely)," he added.

Getting parents involved

Emily Sears, who coordinates Towson University's substance abuse counseling center, said many young people don't know how to drink responsibly.

"There's a complete lack of understanding and knowledge about how to measure a drink ... how to measure a shot out instead of just pouring alcohol out of a bottle into a red Solo cup," she said. Towson students call their plastic cup concoctions "jungle juice," Sears said. And when she was in college at Loyola in the early 1990s, her peers called it "the trash can."

Towson students are required to take an online alcohol education course as freshmen, like many other students at campuses around the country, including U.Va.

But Gimbel thinks there should be more done, "especially with freshmen and getting parents involved."

There should be "more education, mandatory education," he said, "not just something on a computer." The college drinking of today feels different to him, more dangerous. "It's the worst I've seen it in my 30 years in this business," he said.

Gimbel is urging parents to keep their young adult children close to home and to make surprise visits at their dorms and apartments. And after Love's death, he also started suggesting that parents ask their kids to sign waivers, so the school can notify them if trouble occurs.

"Somebody has got to step in and do something. It's Russian roulette; otherwise, another Yeardley Love can happen," Gimbel said. "We've got to learn from this. ... It would just be a bigger tragedy if we didn't do something that would make a difference."

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