No walking at night: Hannah Graham’s death shows danger all women face on campus

By Sarah Gamard

(Alex Proimos/Flickr)
(Alex Proimos/Flickr)

After over a month of waiting, the headline we all dreaded has appeared: police found the remains of Hannah Graham, a missing 18-year-old University of Virginia student.

Her story is deeply disturbing and tragic to anyone who has ever been a college student, parent, Charlottesville resident or teenage girl: Graham’s last communication with anyone was a text to a friend around 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 13. Footage from a security camera shows her leaving a bar that same night at 2 a.m., followed by the 32 year-old suspect, Jesse Matthew, who is currently under detainment and investigation. The remains, recently confirmed as Graham’s, were found the morning of Oct. 18, eight miles away from where she was last seen.

UVA and the surrounding community responded with organizations like “Help Save the Next Girl” and social media pages about Graham. Shortly after her disappearance, distress circulated among not only those close to Graham, but across the country. The incident of a missing girl is like that of a school shooting, harshly reminiscent of the dangers of everyday, innocent, adolescent life.

We take for granted that college campuses are safe. Students are supposed to feel free to walk through campus, whether walking to class, a club meeting, a dining hall or a friend’s distant dorm room. With the vigilant campus police, it is hard to feel threatened. I feel completely safe when walking alone on the University of Massachusetts campus, no matter what hour of the night it is, and despite growing up in a city where I would have never dreamed of wandering alone at any hour.

Very early on this semester, when crossing campus alone at night, I was on the phone with a friend from my hometown and complained to her about the long walk. She immediately replied, “Do you have mace on you?”

I told her I didn’t need it, that “things like that” don’t happen at college the way they happen in the city and that there was no reason to worry.

Shortly after that, Hannah Graham’s name first appeared on national news.

I first heard about Graham from a family member who urged me to exercise the buddy system no matter where I went. This family member had an incident similar to Graham’s happen to her, in which her best friend was unexpectedly abducted and murdered. These tragedies have happened, are happening and – unless something is done – will continue to happen.

But can one realistically use the buddy system at all times?

Every student is on his or her own schedule. So where do we draw the line when we must exercise caution to a point where we cannot wander in safety through their campus after dark? I cannot imagine this realistically. I am constantly walking alone from my dorm to classes to dining halls no matter what time of day.

If you are a female, you have not only heard stories like Hannah Graham’s through the news but also through your friends, family and school-hosted seminars. These stories are lessons: don’t take the ride home offered by the friendly stranger, don’t venture on-foot after dark without a male chaperone and don’t go anywhere alone, especially without your cell-phone.

The Graham case is a familiar story we’ve seen before in movies like “Silence of the Lambs” and “The Black Dahlia”: the primary suspect has been linked to other attacks on young women in the past, including the murder of a Virginia Tech student in 2009 and the sexual assault of a 26-year-old in 2005. These attackers strike not once, but as many times as they can without being stopped. Young women, it seems, can only live in fear of attack.

What can be done? Is there anything that can be done besides our caution and attempting an efficient version of the theoretical buddy system? This doesn’t seem to be a topic like others that we can discuss in hopes to invoke societal change. Do we just have to spend the rest of our college careers, the rest of our lives as 21st century women, clutching a bottle of mace when we walk from one building to another after sunset?

Sarah Gamard is a Collegian contributor. She can be reached at [email protected]