In the wake of last year’s string of sexual assaults, including the disappearance and death of a student, personal safety awareness and the prevention of violence on and off campus has become a top priority at Appalachian State University.
The college will observe Safety Week in early September and will begin with the 26th annual Walk for Awareness — an event that aims to memorialize members of the Appalachian family who have been victims of violent crimes and to raise continued awareness for the prevention of those tragedies.
Sexual assault and related crimes threaten the safety of college students across the country every year, and the campus of Appalachian State has been no exception. Despite the tight-knit, comfortable community we share here in Boone, dangers still exist.
Perhaps the most widely recognized case in the university’s recent history was the death and disappearance of ASU student Anna Smith, who was reported missing by her roommate in early September 2014. Less than two weeks later, after an arduous investigation, local authorities found her body off of Poplar Grove Road in Boone and her death was eventually ruled a suicide.
Before her disappearance, she told her family she had been the victim of sexual assault.
The Appalachian community still mourns the death of Smith and others who, like her, lost their lives due to senseless violence. Students on campus remember hearing the unnerving news of what happened to her, and many say they were surprised to hear that it happened in what they thought was a safe place.
“I was worried and scared,” said Ashley Kruzel, a sophomore who lived on campus when Smith disappeared. “I was worried for my friends who went home alone. I was always scared they were going to be assaulted.”
After the discovery of Smith’s remains, the university released email after email announcing reported cases of sexual assault and/or violence that followed. Hearing of reported crimes helped students understand what was going on around them, but it didn’t stop them from feeling uneasy on a campus that once felt like a safe haven.
“It was shocking how close it was to me,” said Victoria Skelly, a current sophomore at ASU. “That was the closest I had ever really been to that.”
Along with the emails, however, the university made great strides to let its students know what was being done to make their safety a priority. Students on and off campus were supplied with information to help them prevent crimes, report any suspicious behaviors and keep one another safe.
While the university has made a great effort to combat sexual assault and violence in the community, the dangers still exist, and it’s still important for everyone to know how to make sure they, along with their friends and family, stay protected.
Appalachian will host its 26th annual Walk for Awareness on Tuesday, Sept. 1 as part of its Safety Week, which takes place Sept. 1-3 on campus.
The walk aims to remind community remembers why personal safety is so important, as well as to raise awareness of the existing dangers of sexual assault and other violent crimes. The event also will serve as a way for the Appalachian family to honor its members who have survived such crimes and those who didn’t make it.
The Walk for Awareness began in 1989 as a way for the university to honor and memorialize Jeni Gray, a 27-year-old ASU employee who was abducted, sexually assaulted and murdered right here in Boone.
Gray’s killer also abducted and assaulted notable ASU alumna Leigh Cooper Wallace, who was able to escape and survived the attack.
“Leigh Cooper Wallace left us with a quote,” ASU Associate Dean of Students Judith Haas said on Thursday. “We are stronger than we think.”
With national statistics indicating that one in every five women are sexually assaulted over the course of their college careers, it is of the utmost importance for people in the community and on college campuses to really focus on personal safety, and what it means to stand up against this type of violence.
“I want our students and community to know that we are stronger than we think, and that we can stand up against violence and harassment,” Haas said. “It just takes one person to make a difference, but we are stronger when we stand together.”
ASU puts on Safety Week every year on the campus in order to help promote personal safety and bring the community together to take that stand as one against the violence that plagues cities and college campuses all over the world.
The week will begin with the Walk for Awareness on Sept. 1, followed by a Safety Festival on Sanford Mall on Sept. 2. Faculty, staff and volunteers will visit more than 1,600 off-campus residencies to talk about student safety in “House Calls” on the evening of Sept. 3.
Along with those events, several training programs will be offered for students throughout the week on dealing with issues surrounding drugs, alcohol, suicide and interpersonal violence.
“Our hope through these events is that we can let students know they matter and that we care about them,” said Dean of Students J.J. Brown.
While the topic of sexual assault and violence can be upsetting, may trigger uncomfortable feelings and is often hard to talk about, it’s still a conversation that needs to take place at Appalachian and in communities everywhere.
“Students are away from home and may never have thought about safety before. They are new to campus and are learning how to trust themselves and others,” Haas said. “The more accurate information they have, the better choices they will make.”
Talking about something so vital on the university’s campus is a major step in preventing further assaults.
“While we are a safe campus and a safe community, we are introducing students to a new environment,” Brown said. “We want to be sure they are aware of the many resources and support mechanisms on campus and in the community.”
In many ways, the campus is the center of Boone and is therefore a main component of the community. It is an integral part of what shapes the environment and atmosphere of the town we all love enough to choose to call home.
With a community like ours, there’s no doubt we can all work together to put an end to sexual assault and violence in our area and, hopefully, wherever we go.
“As a community, we are reminded that we are connected and that we need to be active bystanders. It is our responsibility to look out for each other,” Haas said. “It is up to us. Our goal is to be a campus free of interpersonal violence, and we acknowledge that it takes all of us to make that happen.”
Indeed, it is a community-wide effort to help keep our wonderful town free from the dangers of sexual assault and violence, both on campus and off.
Together, we can keep each other safe, protect our students and community members and make sure they don’t become another heartbreaking headline in the news.
The Walk for Awareness will begin at 9 p.m. on Sept. 1 at Sanford Mall on ASU’s campus and will end at the Schaeffer Center for the Performing Arts. Speakers will include Chancellor Sheri N. Everts, student leaders and Kit Gruelle, an Appalachian alumna, a survivor of domestic violence and an outspoken advocate for awareness.
For more information, call Jane Nicholson at 828-262-2345.