Schools trying to prevent and respond to sexual violence

By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, May 24, 2010

Most students don't think violent relationships are a problem at college, said Georgetown University senior Jared Watkins, who helps lead a group of men there who are concerned about sexual assault and violence. If students think about abuse at all, they picture an older married couple, maybe poor or alcoholic -- nothing like their friends at school.

Then Yeardley Love was found dead. The death of the University of Virginia senior, and the murder charge against her classmate George Huguely, defied the stereotype for students who couldn't imagine such a brutal crime on a college campus.

Now some students and school officials are wondering whether they are doing enough to prevent problems and recognize that dating violence can happen anywhere.

"It's incredibly common both at the high school and college level," said Juley Fulcher, director of policy programs for Break the Cycle, a nonprofit organization that tries to end teen dating violence. Some studies suggest that one in five relationships at college involves violence. Sixteen-to-24-year-olds have the highest reported incidence of domestic and dating violence, according to Department of Justice statistics.

College, which seems safe, with sheltered campuses, nearby friends and adults looking out for students, can be surprisingly dangerous, advocates said. It's easy to follow someone on campus and know his or her routines, said Connie Kirkland, director of sexual assault services at George Mason University.

"People go to class, they go back to their dorms, they go to the same places to eat," she said. "It's really easy to intercept them."

Several campus experts on dating violence said they have seen a large increase in the number of stalking cases in recent years, most likely because technology such as texting and instant messaging makes it so easy. "So often a student says, 'He texts me 20, 50, 80 times a day, just to see where I am -- just to see that I'll respond,' " Kirkland said.

Schools can offer a level of protection beyond the criminal justice system's capabilities, including their own judicial processes and protective orders in some cases, or the ability to move a student out of a dorm quickly to a safer location.

That is important because "young women are really not protected under the law," said Kathryn Laughon, an assistant professor of nursing at U-Va. who specializes in intimate-partner homicide and safety planning.

State legislation varies widely; Break the Cycle gave the District an A for its protections for young people who seek help for dating violence. Maryland received a C and Virginia an F.

In many states, Laughon said, people younger than 18 can't file for protective orders. Virginia received its failing grade because it does not allow people to obtain protective orders against someone they are dating or have dated. They must be married to, have a child with or live with that person, and the court must determine that there has been physical abuse.

Maryland's law, like Virginia's, encourages public schools to include information about dating violence in their curricula. Some minors can get protective orders. In the District, people as young as 12 years old can petition for protective orders, which can be issued against minors if a judge determines there has been physical or sexual abuse, threats, stalking or property damage. The orders can be granted to people who are dating, not just to those who are married.

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