My Daughter Lost A Classmate To A Rapist: A Former Sex Crimes Prosecutor’s Reflections on Campus Sexual Assault

What is the right plan to give your daughter to protect herself when the statistics say that one in four college-aged women are sexually assaulted?
Publish date:
November 19, 2015
rape, college, sexual assault, crime

“So do you have enough kale to juice?” I ask my 19-year old college sophomore daughter over dinner at her pastoral New England college.

After a brilliant October day attending parents’ weekend events, we have escaped campus to give her a break from dining hall food. I am looking forward to hearing about classes, friends and talking about our shared obsession with eating healthy.

“It’s a pain but I buy it in town and try to juice most mornings,” she says, before the conversation takes a sudden turn.

“You know this whole thing with Hannah is starting to hit me harder.”

All thoughts of kale, classes and friends vanish in an instant. My daughter was classmates in grade school and high school with Hannah Graham, a University of Virginia student who was murdered last year.

The man now charged with the murder of Hannah Graham and that of Morgan Harrington, another university student who was killed in 2009 , is named Jesse Matthews. Matthews allegedly committed two different campus sexual assaults on two different campuses, years before he encountered the two University of Virginia students.

“Knowing what you know, Dad, do you think she had a lot of pain? I mean do you think she suffered?”

I am a former sex crimes prosecutor. Years ago, on a bright autumn day, I left work early and picked up my then 1-year old daughter from her daycare. I took her for a walk in her stroller amidst fallen leaves.

That morning, a serial rapist I had prosecuted had been sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole plus an additional 50 years for a different rape. Pushing my daughter in her stroller through the fallen leaves, I felt satisfied that I had made the world a little safer for her and confident in my ability to protect her as she grew up.

But now my daughter’s question leaves me fumbling for words. I do not know if her classmate suffered. And her question makes me afraid.

“She might have been drugged,” I say, “so she was probably unconscious.”

My daughter says she has heard that Hannah was drunk. I tell her I’ve heard that, too. My daughter knows I have spoken about the prevalence of campus sexual assaults and the frequent tie-in to alcohol.

“Maybe if she hadn’t been drinking,” she says.

I nod. I shrug, too. I want her to believe that would have made a difference. I want her to believe — and I want to believe — in being able to control the events in our lives.

Parents are supposed to sound sure that they have the right answer, the right plan. But what is the right plan to give your daughter to protect herself when the statistics say that one in four college-aged women are sexually assaulted?

For all the debate about legislation mandating better process, training for bystander intervention, and mandatory notification of law enforcement, what do we really know about what is happening? Is this truly a new epidemic of sexual violence or just a bounce-back from decades of under-reporting and indifference on the part of universities?

I have only a slight memory of Hannah — tall with a friendly and pretty smile — but the thought of her haunts me over the next few days as I attend events with other parents. The bright sunshine and colors of autumn New England feel ominous to me, as if lulling us into complacency.

All around me I see the awkwardness of parents adjusting to their children growing up. The desire to avoid interfering in your children’s growing independence meshes poorly with the anxiety of feeling like your time with your child is slipping away.

The children know this. It shows in newfound attentiveness to their parents. Gone is the high school resentment of parental presence and, unexpectedly, in its place emerges grace.

But I am all too aware of the vulnerability of such grace. I rage at Hannah’s murderer and am afraid of the shadow his monstrous acts cast over the safety of my daughter.

Perhaps no amount of improved campus sexual assault policies would have prevented the murder of my daughter’s classmate. Sometimes fate is just cruel and unfair. But if it is true that the man now charged with Hannah Graham’s murder committed previous campus sexual assaults, then it seems as if something could have been done to stop him.

Before I leave, I ask my daughter about the feelings caused by her classmate’s murder. She tells me she is OK. I tell her something will come out of this — it is a big enough case that it will bring some kind of change. She nods.

“I know, Dad,” she says. She hugs me goodbye. “And don’t worry, I’m good with the kale.”

We are trying to reassure each other. That seems enough for now.