BURLINGTON - Being located in or near the city of Burlington is an asset for colleges like the University of Vermont, but the recent murder of UVM senior Michelle Gardner-Quinn has caused many students to re-evaluate their impressions of this quiet college town and to change their behavior, especially late at night.
According to Ashley Fitzpatrick, a senior at St. Michael's College, that reaction is not limited to students at UVM. She says St. Mike's students are definitely more cautious about what they're doing at night and with whom. "We are a lot more aware of who and what is around us," she says. "Before I used to walk around alone. I don't walk anywhere by myself now - it makes me nervous."
UVM sophomore Katie Nickitas agrees. "I think that when you go off campus - or even on campus - and are out at night as a female, you need to take precautions," she says. "I do, and would feel extremely nervous walking alone almost anywhere at night."
Nancy Solberg, a freshman who lives on UVM's Redstone campus, says she always takes the bus downtown and back, but usually walks from the Living and Learning complex to Redstone. After police found Gardner-Quinn's body last week, Solberg felt uncomfortable walking alone that far, even during the day. She called a friend on her cell phone for an escort.
She adds that students in her dorm used to leave the building through emergency exit doors, but don't anymore. Campus security is watching the doors more closely, she says, and now if they're used for anything other than an emergency, students are fined.
In a press release last Wednesday, the Vermont Network Against Domestic and Sexual Violence said women are right to be scared. "The unfortunate reality is that women's safety is potentially at risk in every aspect of their lives - in their homes, at school, at work, or on the street," the release reads. "There is a war against women occurring in our society, and until we address the oppressions underlying this injustice, women will not truly be safe regardless of who or where they are."
Male students say they understand their female classmates' fear, but few of them seem to share it. "Do I feel less safe? Not really," says UVM junior Andrew Detullio. But he says he does feel more aware of his surroundings. "You just notice things more," says Detullio. "If you walk past someone you kind of are a little more skeptical of them." He adds that he's not at all reluctant to walk a female friend home if she feels uneasy.
UVM senior Scott Kuhlen says more of his female friends are asking him for an escort. "I was hanging out with one of my friends recently, and she said, 'You are walking me home tonight,'" he recalls. "I've definitely heard women be more assertive about being walked home."
Kuhlen's also more aware of how he behaves around women he sees walking home alone. A few nights after Gardner-Quinn's disappearance, Kuhlen found himself strolling behind a woman late at night. He didn't know her, and she didn't say anything to him, but he thought his presence might have made her uncomfortable, so he backed off a bit.
"I kind of just stopped and looked at my cell phone or something," he says, "just to give some distance there." He's done that a few times since, he adds. "I've talked to friends who've had the same experience."
Kuhlen's housemate, Champlain College junior Mike Shannon, says he's also become more sensitive to requests from female friends who want him to walk or drive them home. "You just don't know who's out there," he says. "I feel like, once it's dark now, people are scared."
Members of the UVM community are organizing to combat that fear. On Thursday, October 26, there will be a speak-out on violence against women at noon on the steps of Waterman, sponsored by Men Advocating Change. And on Monday, October 30, the UVM Women's Center is organizing a Community Brainstorm for Action in Billings' North Lounge, from 6 to 8 p.m. Says the UVM website: "This gathering will provide a forum to share ideas about how to end violence against women."
UVM student Molly Shaker contributed to this story.