Amid Partying at UVa, a Painful Note of Caution Intrudes

Justin Ide for The Chronicle

An appeal to “Bring Hannah Home” has replaced the usual lighthearted graffiti on Beta Bridge, in Charlottesville, Va., since the disappearance of Hannah Graham, a UVa student, in mid-September.
October 07, 2014

It’s another Friday night at the University of Virginia. Students play rugby on a broad, sunken field, fraternity brothers tend a grill outside their stately brick house, and people across the campus primp for a night at their favorite bars, whether at the Downtown Mall, a mile and a half away, or along The Corner, the retail row that abuts the university.

Three Fridays ago, Hannah Graham disappeared into a night like this one. The 18-year-old second-year student vanished from the Downtown Mall, after texting her friends that she was lost.

Jesse Matthew, a 32-year-old man with a history of sexual-assault allegations, was the last person seen with her. Mr. Matthew, charged with abduction with intent to defile, is in jail awaiting a hearing. Little specific evidence has been made public.

The outpouring of compassion in the days immediately following the disappearance was intense, as has been news coverage of the case ever since.

On the campus now, though, students say the initial sense of shock has faded. A suspect is in custody. The police presence seems robust. Most students are simply exercising a little more caution.

"I think, for a lot of us, daily life has resumed" out of necessity, says Jalen Ross, president of the Student Council. "We’ve got exams, we’ve got school, we’ve got football games."

But students live their lives among the reminders of Ms. Graham’s absence: an orange ribbon pinned to a lapel, a missing-person notice, a church notice welcoming all who seek peace.

Even before her disappearance, students were engaged in a campuswide dialogue about safety. This past summer, in reaction to a push by students and increased federal scrutiny, students and administrators created Not On Our Grounds, a sexual-assault-prevention campaign. One of its efforts, #HoosGotYourBack, promotes bystander intervention, the idea that students can create a safer community by looking out for classmates’ well-being.

Campus leaders have tried to involve local bars and merchants in the effort. After all, the ideals of Mr. Jefferson’s "academical village" regularly intersect with the realities of the outside world. Students flow from the campus into coffee shops and stores, where the strangers they pass may not feel compelled to intercede in their best interests.

On one street, a shop advertises #HoosGotYourBack. On another, photos of Ms. Graham and Mr. Matthew are juxtaposed on a storefront poster. Graffiti on nearby Beta Bridge implores, "Bring Hannah Home."

But one question quietly haunts the university: Who’s got students’ backs when they step off the campus?

‘Responsibility to Get Involved’

The University of Virginia’s genteel idiosyncrasies are a source of pride among its students. They refer to their campus as "grounds," distinguish their progress in terms of years completed (freshmen are "first-years"; seniors, "fourth-years"), and reserve a special reverence for the ideal of self-governance.

"For anything that happens, I just assume it’s student-driven," says Rachel Carle, a third-year student who’s involved with sexual-violence-prevention programs. "The administration doesn’t need to organize it, because the students will."

In a small cafe near the university’s famous Lawn, Sara Surface explains the ways students are taught to intervene on behalf of their friends. The co-chair of the university’s Sexual Violence Prevention Coalition wears a "Not On Our Grounds" T-shirt, having just come from a campus-safety event.

"It’s not just a perpetrator and a victim," she says. "Everyone has more of a responsibility to get involved."

Ms. Graham’s disappearance has captured media attention, but Ms. Surface and other student leaders are reluctant to discuss it in the context of #HoosGotYourBack. First, they point out, her case is still open, and few facts are known.

Second, the attention might obscure the point those students are trying to drive home: Most sexual assaults are committed by people the victims know, rather than, Mr. Ross says, "people lurking and preying on the university." An assault is more likely to be, say, a dorm-room encounter begun at a party than an abduction by a stranger.

Ms. Graham’s disappearance doesn’t fit easily into that narrative, which makes it especially unsettling to students, and effective in driving their attention to safety strategies. Women in particular report being more careful, and both men and women say they now take steps to prevent friends from walking home alone.

"I think the randomness of it is very frightening to people," says Nicole Eramo, associate dean of students and chair of the university’s Sexual Misconduct Board.

‘I Need to Party Tonight’

It’s pouring on the Downtown Mall at 10:26 p.m., but passersby are weathering the rain in high spirits. Hannah Graham was last seen near here, at Tempo, an upscale restaurant off a narrow street where people eat in black-and-white booths and drink at the bar under the glassy stare of a buffalo head wearing a fedora.

A horde of wet students jostles aboard the free trolley that connects downtown, The Corner, and the UVa grounds. They break into a chorus of "Sweet Caroline" as they settle into seats.

Four students sit in the back, plotting their next move: a food stop at The Corner, then on to the Sigma Pi fraternity house. They debate how much they’ve already had to drink, and they marvel that it’s not yet 10:30 p.m. One young woman tells her companions, "I need to party tonight."

The trolley makes an unusually long stop, and just as the four friends start to get restless, a police officer climbs aboard. They freeze; one of the young men just mentioned that he’s not yet 21. But the officer doesn’t approach them. He exchanges words with one of the few middle-aged passengers, then escorts him off the bus for allegedly walking out of a restaurant without paying his bill.

The students laugh nervously. "Guys, we were just sitting next to a convict," one says.

This trolley had already ceased service for the night by the time Ms. Graham sent her last text message, at 1:06 a.m. on Saturday. The university’s SafeRide system, which offers free lifts to nonintoxicated students traveling alone, doesn’t start its Saturday-morning rounds until 2:30 a.m. Closing that gap in safe transportation is on the Student Council’s agenda. One new service, Buddies on Call, enables students walking alone to request two volunteer escorts.

At seven minutes to midnight, The Virginian, a landmark bar on The Corner, is packed. The tall man checking IDs at the door wears a #HoosGotYourBack T-shirt. Inside the place, it’s almost impossible to move. Women stand on top of tables and sing along to "Sweet Home Alabama," grabbing beer bottles passed to them over the heads of other patrons, some of whom are celebrating a 30th-birthday party.

Over at Boylan Heights, on 14th Street, a dance party is brewing in the large upstairs room. At the bar, a young woman pushes past a young man with dreadlocks. Perhaps with Mr. Matthew in mind, she whispers to a friend, "This guy looks so much like him, it’s freaking me out."

Across the street, Two Guys Tacos serves munchies to a couple of students. "Be safe tonight! #hoosgotyourback," the restaurant tweets at 1 a.m.

Its front window bears a message: FIND Hannah Graham.

‘Too Drunk Too Often’

Early on in the #HoosGotYourBack campaign, organizers handed out tipsheets on sexual-violence awareness and enlisted merchants on The Corner to participate in bystander-intervention training.

At Finch, a clothing store, employees wear the #HoosGotYourBack T-shirt. Robbie Stone, general manager at The Virginian, says the bar posted campaign videos on its staff Facebook page. On busy nights, at least one bartender will usually wear the T-shirt. "People who see it have asked questions, which proved to me it’s a good idea," Mr. Stone says.

Beyond The Corner, the solution is less clear.

"We’re about five blocks from the Charlottesville community," says Ms. Carle, one of the student activists. "It’s a very clear divide between students and Charlottesville community members, and it creeps up fast."

Even on UVa’s grounds, student leaders say, #HoosGotYourBack is not a panacea. Some students say they don’t know about the campaign, although Ms. Graham did. At 2:12 a.m. on August 30, two weeks before she disappeared, she tweeted, "Got an alone drunk girl to a bus tonight #hoosgotyourback."

At times, acknowledges the Student Council president, bystander intervention may amount to "management of already-made bad decisions." Alcohol is not to blame for assaults, he says, but it plays a role.

"Too many people are too drunk too often," he says. "The most immediate, tangible change is better management of what I admit is probably the margins of the problem."

Abraham Axler, president of the second-year class, recalls a recent night when he and a friend were walking to their car and stopped to offer a ride to a woman they saw standing alone. Previously they may have simply continued on their way, he says. But this time, they backtracked to check on her. "We’re walking back around," Mr. Axler says. "It’s changed our consciousness."

At 2 a.m., students stream out of the bars at closing time. Some head to Littlejohn’s deli; others go home or to other people’s places. A couple kisses passionately in the middle of the street. A man urinates in a well-lit corner. Aided by police officers, a man lifts a thin woman from where she’s lying on the ground and sets her gently into a taxi.

Students walk down 15th Street, alone and in throngs, shouting and texting and telling stories.

They amble across Beta Bridge, where a large message, left by friends who had studied abroad with Hannah Graham in Lyon, France, is scrawled beside the plea to bring her home.

Tu nous manques.

We miss you.

Corrections (10/7/2014, 5:40 p.m.): The man arrested in the case, Jesse Matthew, is 32 years old, not 34. In addition, the message on Beta Bridge was left by friends who had studied abroad with Hannah Graham in Lyon, France. The message was not left by someone named Lyon. This article has been updated to reflect those corrections.