Monday, October 29, 2007

the story I'm telling

I'm speaking on campus tomorrow to a group of freshmen who think because they're "grown" it's nobody's business what they do, where they go, and when they're comin back. I'm telling the story of my cousin, who was killed in her dorm room last December. Here's the text:

My name is Misty Cline and I work in the office of Marketing and Communications here on campus. I’m here this morning to tell you a story.
But first, I’d like to say congratulations. For many of you, beginning college is your first foray into adulthood. So, well done.
How many of you live in the Wildcat Commons?
How many of you live in another dorm on campus?
How many of you have your own apartments?
Living on your own, another big step into adulthood. Congratulations.
But I promised you a story.
And the story I’m here to tell is one of another young adult, like yourselves, who stepped out of her parents’ home for the first time to attend college. Far enough away from her hometown that she had to live on campus, but not so far away she couldn’t come home for a long weekend, or that her hometown boyfriend couldn’t come visit.
Laura settled into her new life as a first-semester freshman. She joined an athletic team. She made friends, attended classes, did all the things you are doing now. And then, the week before finals, she disappeared.
She went to a Secret Santa party with her rowing teammates on the night of December 12. She drove a couple of teammates home, returned to her own dorm room, and talked to her boyfriend on the phone. She logged onto her Facebook account and looked at some photos from the party she had just attended. Then she went to bed.
Two and a half days later, her dad finally convinced someone in the University administration that not hearing from his daughter for two days was not normal. That not getting phone calls, or e-mails, from her in two days was not normal.
And I can’t tell you how many times we get that phone call from YOUR parents. Either the President’s office, my office in Marketing, but especially the Student Affairs office. A couple of times a day, someone in Fort Valley State University’s administration gets a phone call from a frantic parent, desperate to find one of you. And then we have to embarrass everyone by tracking you down, in class, in your dorms, in your friends’ rooms.
And now that I’ve gone and interrupted my story, I have to tell you that now that you’re adults, you have some responsibilities you might not have expected. You have the responsibility to show up for class, if that’s where you’re supposed to be. You have the responsibility to show up at parties and group events, if you’ve told someone you’ll be there. You have the responsibility to answer your phones and return messages. Because when you don’t, other responsible adults worry about you.
I promise you, if I drop off the grid, people will notice. If I don’t show up to work, my boss is going to call my cell phone. And if she doesn’t get an answer from my phone, she’s going to call my husband’s phone. And if he calls me and doesn’t get an answer, then he’s going to leave his work and come find me. If I don’t show up at my sorority events, someone is going to call me. If I say I’ll be at a party, and then change my mind and don’t go, the host will call me at some point, not just to bawl me out for not being there, but to find out why I wasn’t there. So, as a responsible adult, if I’m not going to be somewhere I’ve promised I will be, I have to call. My boss, the doctor, the party host, whomever I have an appointment with, I call. Okay, if I don’t want to talk to them, I e-mail, but hey, I make contact.
Because a responsible adult doesn’t just “get missing” and not tell someone where they are going and when to expect them back. As an adult, you may not be living with your parents anymore, but you are still part of a community. Those of you living in the Commons, you are a community. If you live in an apartment, you are part of a community. In this class, you are part of a community.
And that brings me back to Laura, and my story.
Missing two days, and no one at her school bothered to check after her. A girl who normally is in every class suddenly misses two days the week before finals, and her professors don’t raise any kind of alarm. Her friends just assumed she was either sleeping or studying. Her suitemate, a girl she shared a bathroom with, didn’t think anything of her sudden absence. She did, however, notice a funny smell in the bathroom.
So, instead of knocking on Laura’s door and saying, “hey, what’s that smell, did you leave something in here?” she cleaned the bathroom.
When that didn’t take care of the smell, she thought it might be a broken sewage pipe. So she calls housekeeping.
It’s December 15 and Laura’s dad has finally talked University officials into opening Laura’s room. But the housekeepers beat the administration to the door. Laura’s in her room, alright. She’s been lying on the floor, dead, for two and a half days.
Laura’s community failed her. Not only did they not check on her when she went missing, they failed her in a larger sense. They let her killer into her living space.
Laura was sexually assaulted and murdered. There’s more to the story, but this is the part that affects you:
Those of you who live in an apartment: if you saw someone hanging outside your apartment door, would you let them in when you opened your door?
Those of you who live in a dorm, why do you let people who don’t have a key in? And I know you do it. You’re going into the Commons, someone is suddenly right on your heels. Instead of turning around and asking “Do you live here?” you let them tailgate into your living space. In some cases, you hold the door for them! Your buddy calls – “I’m outside, come let me in” – and you do. But when he leaves your room, do you walk him out, to make sure he leaves the dorm? Like your “boys” all you want, but know that some of them can’t be trusted.
Ever prop your door open for a visitor you’re expecting? Your boyfriend is getting out of class before you and wants to just meet you in your room? Unh uh. He should meet you at YOUR class and walk you home, ladies. Waiting for your cousin to drop by? Your cousin can wait for you in a common area, you don’t prop your door open so they can “come on in.”
Laura’s killer wasn’t supposed to be in any of the dorms at her school – he’d been kicked out for dealing pot. But the night she was killed, police found security video of not one, not two, but three of his buddies letting him into different dorms, through different entrances. Stairway entrances, not the main ones with RA’s on duty to sign visitors in.
But no one let him into Laura’s dorm. At least, no one he asked to let him in. He tailgated into her dorm behind a student who opened the door with a key. Then he went to the fifth floor – not the first, not the second or third or fourth – the fifth. He took the stairs, which opened right in front of her room. He broke into her room, suffocated her, and sexually assaulted her body. When he left, he took her keys so he could lock the door from the outside.
And no one checked on her for two full days. Even with a funny smell in their common bathroom, Laura’s suitemate didn’t think anything of not seeing the girl she lived next door to and spoke to almost every day.
If I accomplish nothing else today, I want you to not leave here that naiive. I want you to accept the responsibility that comes with being a part of a community of grown adults. That means you care about each other. It means you pay attention to each other. It means you communicate with each other. If you don’t, well that’s a whole ‘nother kind of warning sign. Remember, the one thing generally acknowledged about the Virginia Tech shooter was that he didn’t talk to anybody. He deliberately wasn’t part of any community.
So if you don’t see your buddy for a couple of days, find out why. If your suitemates suddenly drop off the grid - and you live with them, you know what’s “normal” – don’t ignore it.
Likewise, if you’re going to “get missing” for a couple of days – we all need vacations – tell someone when to expect you back. I was 24, decided to drop out for a long weekend. Didn’t want my parents knowing where I was going, but I gave my roommate my flight information. In my case, if the plane went down I wanted someone to know I was on it! But if I didn’t return on time, she’d have raised the alarm.
Now why am I so adamant about this? Why do I care what happened to some girl not on this campus, not even in Georgia?
Laura was my cousin. Her dad raised me until I was three. He has a part of my heart. And losing his only daughter has broken his heart.
Further, Laura’s killer is still free. Because no one checked on her, because she lay for two days in a hot room, her body decomposed to an extent where evidence that could have been used to convict her killer was destroyed. Real crime isn’t like CSI: fingerprints don’t stay where they are placed forever; evidence of assault is destroyed when a body isn’t found right away.
So it’s possible Laura’s killer will not be convicted for his crime. And while her death is his fault, several people share the blame in her tragedy. The person who let him tailgate into her dorm, for example. The suitemate who couldn’t be bothered to check on her. The administration that took two days of convincing to open her door. Laura’s community failed her, and now I’m here telling you her story so you don’t fail your community.
I know you’re grown. I know you don’t want anyone checking up on you. I know you aren’t yet comfortable checking up on anyone else. But if you’re going to be an adult, you have a job to do. And that is to take care of yourselves and the people who care about you. So answer your phones. Return your messages. Be where you say you’re going to be. And when you take a vacation from your life, let someone know when to look for you back. Don’t just be grown up, be an adult.

Feel free to share.


Anonymous said...

Misty, please remember innocent until proven guilty. He's an ALLEGED killer as the jury deadlocked and the judge declared a mistrial. Very risky for a newspaper blog to brand a man guilty. Slippery slope, indeed.

misty said...

That would be why I didn't name him. There is no saying at this point that the person on trial is her killer. However, she was murdered, therefore there is a killer out there somewhere.

KellyC said...

How did the speech go? Do you think the students received & appreciated the message you were trying to convey?

Anonymous said...

Misty, this was a real eye opener for me. I sent this to my daughter at college and she passed it on to her friends. Thank you for this sharing this.