Reserve Judgement

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Unfortunately, as a university spokeswoman, I had to deal with death too often. Suicide. Alcohol abuse. Homicide. Natural causes. The challenge was to provide an empathic, timely, factual and non-judgmental response for the campus community and media.

In the first few hours of any crisis, there are more theories than facts. The cause often seems self-evident. However, the situation is rarely a simple case of cause and effect.

University of Virginia President John Casteen today released a statement regarding the alleged murder of Lacrosse player Yeardley Love. He conveys a compassionate, but judgmental tone.  The text of statement as reported in the Washington Post follows:

“This death moves us to deep anguish for the loss of a student of uncommon talent and promise, and we express the University’s and our own sympathy for Yeardley’s family, teammates and friends. That she appears now to have been murdered by another student compounds this sense of loss by suggesting that Yeardley died without comfort or consolation from those closest to her. We mourn her death and feel anger on reading that the investigators believe that another student caused it.”

He went on to say, “and let us all acknowledge that, however little we may know now about Yeardley Love’s death, we do know that she did not have or deserve to die — that she deserved the bright future she earned growing up, studying here, and developing her talents as a lacrosse player. She deserves to be remembered for her human goodness, her capacity for future greatness, and for the terrible way in which her young life has ended.”

The president of a university has a delicate balancing act when responding to controversy — especially when involving two or more students. While circumstances have implicated George Huguely, a fellow UVA student who was likely romantically involved with Love, President Casteen should reserve his judgment. Huguely has been arrested, but he is still innocent until proven guilty. If he is not convicted of a crime, the president will have contributed to damaging the reputation of young man falsely accused.

A few years ago, I dealt with a similar situation where the initial inquiry pointed to a possible date rape with lethal consequences. However, police investigations and autopsy results confirmed alcohol poisoning. I know how demanding it is convey compassion — outrage at the unnecessary loss of a young life — while remaining neutral until facts have been confirmed.  When an autopsy can take weeks to confirm cause of death, this is not an easy task. The campus community wants answers and needs to begin the healing process.

Whether a student death or an fuel spill (they happen on college campuses too), here are a few considerations in responding to a crisis.

1) Be compassionate and share heart-felt emotions. However, do a gut check to make sure you are responding in consideration of all involved parties. Avoid making unfounded pronouncements and judgments.

2) Share and confirm only the facts. You do not need to comment on speculation.

3) Be responsive to media inquiries. This is an opportunity to gather intelligence. What rumors or information is the reporter trying to confirm? Be an active listener and explain you’ll respond when you can confirm information.

4) Abide by federal regulations safeguarding student privacy. FERPA allows you share “directory” information. Media are savvy and will locate photos and testimonials about the student from other sources.

How you respond and what you say affects not only your reputation, but that of the others involved.

2 Responses to “Reserve Judgement”

  • taschario Says:

    Thanks for your feedback. I’m not defending violence against women or advocating “no comment.”

  • Marc Hausman Says:

    Have to disagree with you on this, Tracy.

    Yeardley Love was found by police in a pool of her blood having been beaten to death. I think the situation called for a strong statement from the university president.

    Compare this to the accused’s high school that chose to make neither the president or his high school coach available, and had no official statement.

    You tell me…who has handled this better?

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