On Friday, June 28, 2019, Ayoola A. Ayayi was charged with the kidnapping and murder of 23-year-old college student Mackenzie Lueck. A year earlier, soon-to-be-University of Iowa-sophomore Mollie Tibbetts vanished from her boyfriend’s home in a town of less than 2000 people. She was murdered by a stranger who abducted her while she was out jogging. There was Hannah Graham, who, in 2014, was abducted, raped and killed after leaving a campus party, and Sierah Joughlin, who was killed after a 58-year-old neighbor abducted her while she was out for a bike ride. 

As a forensic psychologist and the mother of an 18-year-old college freshman, these stories are the source of my nightmares. Most of us think of younger children when we worry about a stranger snatching our child off the street; we talk to them about not taking candy from a stranger or running away if an adult asks for help or directions.   

But given that sexual assault is often the goal of stranger abductions in the United States, is this really who is most at risk? And, as our college age kids leave to go back to school, how do we instill in them a sense of caution without scaring them to death?   

Who Strangers Really Abduct

Teenager girls are the most frequent victims of both stranger kidnappings as well as non-family (friend, acquaintance) abductions; 80% of stranger abductors snatch children 12 and older and seventy percent of them are girls. This is also true for U.S. college age adults; in 2013, 72 young adults – primarily women – aged 18 to 25 were abducted by a stranger.  

This is obviously a small number. However, while the odds against a stranger abducting our college student are in our favor, the mindset of many young adults is not. Living in a closed environment and surrounded by peers, college students tend to think they’re safe. And, just like their teenage peers, many college kids think they’re danger-proof and immortal. In fact, several studies show that many college students will put themselves in harm’s way even when they know better.   

Here’s just one example of what I mean of what I mean. NBC national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen partnered with Hofstra University to see how college students would react to a staged interaction with a stranger. Posing as a reality show casting director with a van and a home video, he randomly invited college students to come into his van and audition for a new reality show. Not only did half of the students willingly enter the van, many of them filled out a form containing all of their personal information (name, address, and phone number). A few even handed over a personal cellphone when Jeff Rossum asked to borrow it, leaving them completely unable to call for help if they really were in danger. Interestingly, almost all of the students who got in the van said they felt “weird” or “uncomfortable” about it – but did it anyway.

Practical Advice for College Kids

The ideal time to have a safety talk with your college student is before she leaves home. However, any time is better than no time. A good way to start is by asking her what thoughts she has about keeping safe at school and what advice she’s gotten from other students she knows. That way, you can cue off how aware she already is of potential dangers and reinforce safety strategies she already has in place.

Here is some additional safety advice based on risk patterns associated with violent college campus crimes.

  1.  Remind her to keep in touch with family and friends.  No, we don’t need to know where our college student is 24/7. However, it’s a good idea for students to let loved ones know where they will be and when they will be back when they are deviating from their normal routine – taking a weekend trip with a new boyfriend or taking a solo road trip. The sooner loved ones know if a problem comes up, the sooner they can help.  
  2. Encourage her to buddy up. Travel together and stay in pairs. Warn your student about the perils of walking alone; a campus security escort is always available if a friend is not. Remind her not to stay at a party later than the last person she trusts; there is safety in numbers, but only when they include people who have her back.
  3. Prepare her to defend herself. Ask her to carry a whistle or alarm and pepper spray. During vulnerable times (while jogging or walking alone, getting in and out of a car, unlocking the door to your apartment) they should be in her hand and she should be prepared to use them.
  4. Remind her to use technology for safety, not distraction. It’s hard to recognize a potentially dangerous situation if you’re so tuned in to your headphones and smartphone that you’re unaware of what’s going on around you. There are also some amazing safety apps that allow friends to estimate how long it should take you to get somewhere and/or literally track a person’s movements; another app lets you alert six predesignated friends with just two taps on your cellphone.
  5. Don’t mistake familiarity with trustworthy. It’s easy to feel “safe” among new friends, especially when you’re all in the same homesickness boat. However, it takes time to find out what people are really like; trust should be earned over time before you give it. Similarly, dorm rooms should be locked no matter how secure your building seems. A big trend in on-campus violence comes is hall cruising, where innocent appearing predators gain access to dorms, sororities, or residence halls by trusting residents. They then cruise the halls looking for unlocked doors to find their victim.

The Bottom Line

No matter how terrifying the thought, statistics show that stranger abduction is not something that should keep us awake at night. Of the 1,435 kidnappings last year, only 100 were committed by a complete stranger. However, Mackenzie and Mollie and Hannah and Sierah are sad reminders that statistics are meaningless when it comes to our own child.