The October disappearance and death of Aniah Blanchard was a wake-up call across the area, compelling many to question just how quiet and safe they really are.
“I’ve always thought Auburn to be like very, very, very safe, but it definitely does make you pay a lot more attention walking around at night and looking out for your friends more,” said Auburn University student Margaret Marks. “None of our roommates or anything have been walking alone at night or Ubering alone. We all stick together.”
Ibraheem Yazeed, 30, of Montgomery, was charged in the Blanchard case and faces first-degree-kidnapping and capital-murder counts.
Local residents were shaken by the news, and many conceded the need for added caution.
“I think it’s just made me more aware of my surroundings. I have class until 5 o’clock today, and so walking back home from class late at night just makes me more aware of what’s going on around me, making sure I’m on the phone with someone instead of just walking and scrolling on my phone,” said Emily Anne Beauschaine, a sophomore at Auburn University.
Ryleigh Randall, a junior at Auburn, expressed resignation and hopefulness when she discussed the Blanchard case and its impact with other students.
“I guess it’s just confirming your suspicion that you’re not really as safe as you think you are,” she said. “Not everyone thinks that ‘well, it’s more of the same’ and ‘that’s a tragedy’ and move on.
“People actually do care and do want to take active and measured steps to make a change and to protect our most vulnerable population, which unfortunately is women in college.”
Randall wants Blanchard’s family to know that she and her friends have learned from Aniah’s case and now think more about their safety.
“There are unique challenges that especially women of color in college ... face anyways, but to have this on top of it, I mean it’s just — I would just want (her family) to know that no one around here, at least that I know of, is taking it lightly. And people are wanting to take steps to change it,” Randall said.
Wariya Khuntonthong, a senior at Auburn, referred to long-heard rumors about the Interstate 85 corridor.
“I’m from Montgomery, so there’s that part of 85 that goes through Montgomery and it’s like really, really well-known for trafficking. So, for me, it’s not necessarily a wake-up call. It’s more of just … it’s spreading ... stuff like that doesn’t happen in Auburn, though,” Khuntonthong said.
Khuntonthong and senior Taylor Greene both said they are better prepared to be more proactive with personal safety habits.
“Nothing has really changed for me. It’s just like my plans for carrying are happening a lot sooner — concealed carry,” said Khuntonthong, referring to having a weapon.
“I have a Taser. I’ve had it since freshman year,” Greene said.
Auburn sophomore Sarah Leos also is more mindful of safety concerns.
“Sometimes, just being aware, going off campus and driving around by myself, just watching out and being more careful for other people,” Leos said. “But I mean I’ve always kind of done that before this, but I just feel like I’m more aware since this has happened.”
Southern Union reacts
The students and faculty of Southern Union State Community College, where Aniah was a student at the Opelika campus, came together soon after Blanchard’s disappearance to reflect and pray.
“Our thoughts are with her parents, it’s got to be devastating for any parents to go through this. Anything we can do to support them or the efforts of the law enforcement agency, we’re willing to do,” said Southern Union President Todd Shackett.
“I think everybody across the state claims Aniah now; not just her family and our school, but students and people all across the state are concerned,” said Eddie Pigg, Southern Union’s associate dean of institutional research and academic advancement.
Susan McCallister, Auburn’s director of dampus safety and compliance, said that her office stepped up its campus outreach and social media effort to address personal safety issues.
The students’ reactions are common in such circumstances.
“We have been hearing from more students about suspicious activity in the past few weeks. This often happens after a high-profile incident which leads people to be more cautious and observant,” she said.
The increased reporting, whether calls turn into anything or not, helps McCallister and her staff get a better feel for what they should, or should not, be doing.
“We want our campus community to report these incidents so that professionals can evaluate each situation,” she said.
Auburn Police Division University Precinct officers patrol the campus 24 hours a day, as well as additional security officers overnights.
There are also more than 150 blue-light emergency phones that dial directly to 911. The 24-hour, on-campus transportation runs via Tiger Transit from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. and the Security Shuttle from 6 p.m. to 7 a.m., and there is an extensive security camera system in place across the campus.
Patrols were stepped up after dark in the weeks after Blanchard’s disappearance.
“We have increased the number of security officers assigned to the campus residential neighborhoods,” McAllister said.
Students should use the personal safety tips at auburn.edu/safety (or in the Auburn Safety app), follow @AuburnSafety on Instagram, sign up for AUALERT, use the buddy system and available transportation, trust their instincts and report all concerns immediately by dialing 911.
‘A safe haven’
At least one Auburn mother plans to do her bit to try to keep this from ever happening again.
“I have two young daughters, both are Auburn University graduates … this is our home. For something like this to happen in our world is devastating,” said Auburn resident Jackie Cofield. “For it happening in our own backyard, it’s a wake-up call. I want my home to be a safe place, a safe haven. Not somewhere where people are afraid to come, afraid of what might happen.
“It’s a call for me to get more involved, more active in what’s going on with my community. And as a teacher, in this area, I just want to reach out and do whatever I can.”