Hannah Graham and Brenda Keith were teenagers whose lives were cut short this fall in eerily similar circumstances. They disappeared within days of each other in September. Their bodies were found within days of each other in October, both left out in the open and so badly decomposed that immediate identification was impossible. But that is where the similarities stop.
The disappearance of Hannah Graham, an 18-year-old sophomore at the University of Virginia, was national, even international, news. The disappearance of Brenda Keith, a 17-year-old senior at West Side High School in Newark, was ignored. I wrote about Brenda’s death after attending her funeral Nov. 4, more than two weeks after her body was found, identified, and cremated. I only found out about her death because I was contacted by former staff members at West Side. They were upset because they believed Brenda was lost in the massive reorganization imposed by the state administration of the Newark public schools.
The Star-Ledger, the closest thing to a local newspaper Newark has, didn’t report Brenda’s death until Nov. 15, three weeks after it reported on Hannah Graham’s apparent murder.
Reports of Hannah Graham’s disappearance and death appeared regularly on national news shows broadcast by ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, and CNN–and on their local affiliates throughout the nation. The tragedy was given regular coverage by George Stephanopoulos and Good Morning, America. Because the story was heavily reported by wire services like the Associated Press, hundreds of newspapers throughout the country and even the world–it was news in Australia and England–carried articles about the tall, brown-haired, blue-eyed teenager from Alexandria. There is even a Wikipedia post dedicated to the disappearance and death of Hannah Graham.
But it wasn’t just the news coverage that distinguished the disappearance and death of Hannah Graham from that of Brenda Keith. Within hours of her reported disappearance, more than a thousand volunteers were organized to search for the young woman–so many that they had to be divided up into groups, each assigned a different time to start searching for her. Homeowners in Charlottesville, the home of the university, and surrounding communities, were asked to search their properties.
Police throughout northern Virginia were mobilized to search for Hannah, as was the state Department of Emergency Management which sent out helicopters to look for the missing student. Virginia Tech employed drones in the search. The FBI became involved.
Thousands of UVA students held a candlelight vigil–and many of them volunteered to search for their missing schoolmate. After Hannah’s body was found, the students built what is expected to become a permanent memorial to the young woman.
Hannah’s body was found off the Lynchburg Road in Albemarle, more than 10 miles from where she disappeared. Brenda’s body was found on the 400 block of South 17th Street, near South Orange Avenue, virtually within sight of West Side.
Hannah’s death was a shock to university and to the state. UVA’s president, Theresa Sullivan, issued a statement calling the young woman’s death “an affront to the sanctity of life.” She added, “Our entire community is grieving.”
None of that, of course, happened in Newark. None of that happened for Brenda Keith. School board officials were not even aware of her disappearance and death until former West Side school staffers told them the day of Brenda’s funeral, Nov. 4. Rashon Hasan, the school board president, did appear at the funeral–but Cami Anderson, the Newark schools superintendent, did not.
While university and public officials rushed to the media to talk about Hannah and the tragedy of her disappearance and death, most of public officials and staff members who knew about Brenda’s death did not because they were afraid of retribution. Some believed Brenda’s death might have been averted if there had been attendance counselors to track her down, if school officials who knew and cared for her at West Side had not been transferred to other schools as part of the constant and deliberate disruption of Newark schools, most recently symbolized by the “One Newark” plan.
“If she had seen some of us when she came back in the fall, she might not have taken off,” said one school staffer who knew her.
Hannah and Brenda were different in many ways, of course. Hannah was white; Brenda was black. Hannah was rich; Brenda was poor. Hannah was a star student and athlete; Brenda was a special needs student who suffered from bipolar disorder. Hannah’s father worked for the World Bank; Brenda’s father, whom she apparently loved dearly, died four years ago at the age of 38.
But should that make a difference–either in how the stories were reported or in how public officials responded? Are we being told by both the media and public officials that, somehow, Brenda was not worth the effort–but Hannah was? One commenter to my blog–whose post I would not print–contended Brenda’s behavior “may” have contributed to her death. What would be the reaction if someone wrote that about Hannah? I won’t print a post of anyone who says that about either of these beautiful kids.
If anything, Brenda needed more attention because of her disability. The institutions and agencies responsible for her, starting with the schools, should have kept a close eye on her.
Both deaths were tragic. Both were, as UVA’s Sullivan said, “affronts to the sanctity of life.”
But human life is as sacred in a special needs black child as it is in a white child who earned early admission into one of the nation’s great universities. I embrace the words of Dr. Paul Farmer, “It is the idea that some lives matter less that is at the root of all of the world’s problems.”
Brenda Keith’s life was worth as much as Hannah Graham’s. The value of each life was immeasurable.
One quote that elucidated the difference between Hannah’s death and Brenda’s death really struck me–especially in the context of the responsibility of the school system for looking after Brenda and keeping her in the presence of those who wanted to help her.
Newark is a state controlled system. It has fared poorly under Anderson’s leadership and, for years, parents and students and school employees and ministers and politicians have begged her boss, Gov. Chris Christie, to do something to stop her–because only he can. Only he can. But he has refused.
After Hannah’s body was found, the governor of Virginia, Terry McAuliffe, issued a statement in which he said, “Our hearts are broken by today’s news, but that will not diminish our resolve to get justice for Hannah and her family.”
Christie said nothing after the news of Brenda’s death was reported.