The story of two dead teenagers

Brenda Keith
Brenda Keith
Hannah Graham
Hannah Graham


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.

Press conference about Hannah draws crowd of reporters
Press conference about Hannah draws crowd of reporters

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.

A billboard while Hannah was still missing
A billboard while Hannah was still missing

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.

Volunteers search for Hannah

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.

Thousands of UVA students participated in candlelight ceremony for the missing Hannah Graham
Thousands of UVA students participated in candlelight ceremony for the missing Hannah Graham

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.

A memorial to Hannah Graham on the UVA campus. The back of the chair was made of her skiis.
A memorial to Hannah Graham on the UVA campus. The back of the chair was made of her skiis.

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.






  1. sad but true…

  2. ” Rashon Hasan, the school board president, did appear at the funeral–but Cami Anderson, the Newark schools superintendent, did not.”

    “…but Cami Anderson, the Newark schools superintendent, did not.”

    “…but Cami Anderson, the Newark schools superintendent, did not.”

    “…but Cami Anderson, the Newark schools superintendent, did not.”

  3. I’ve said it before, but truly I can’t say it enough: thank you Bob Braun for what you do.

  4. Sigh…

  5. You have compounded the tragedies and brought forth a shameful truth.

  6. This is tragic. The comparisons are tragic. That no one in the school knew she was missing, because truant officers have been displaced, reduced, or fired, is tragic. Children traveling across Newark in the early morning dark is tragic (especially if/when they have a neighborhood school nearby and Cami’s One Newark Plan intentionally inflicted this commute on the kids.) The more I read about Cami Anderson, the more I realize she is the devil. Perhaps she does Christie’s and Hespe’s bidding, and that of the privatizers/profiteer/charterizers, but she ENJOYS being the devil. She no longer attends meetings. She never dialogued with the parents and/or students of Newark. I cannot imagine someone in Mendham, Christie’s town, working in the school system and disrespecting the parents so. I’m sorry; I strayed from the story at hand. Brenda Keith had a tough life, and that is a sad thing. May she rest in peace now.

  7. Some children are just more equal than others.
    Look at how bad the publicity had to get at Trenton High School before Christie/Cerf were shamed into action.
    ….the children of Buono voters….

    Shame on us all.

  8. My heart breaks for both families, but more so for Brenda’s because what happened to her is just another example of how our students are unfairly treated. Dare we use the “race” word, but reality is reality.

    The One Newark Plan contributed to Brenda’s death. I have no doubt about that. Not have attendance officers also contributed to Brenda’s death.

    I am worried that we may have other students unaccounted for even as I type this comment. Has NPS accounted for ALL of the students that were registered last year in a NPS school? OR have they just assumed the students are registered or transferred?

    As much as I want to say I am shocked that the superintendent and governor have not publicly stated anything about Brenda’s death, I am not shocked at all. Maybe it is better this way. At least not saying anything they are being honest in that they care nothing for what happened to Brenda and our students. If they said anything now it would be too late and not honest.

    Both the superintendent and governor have shown in their actions and with their words, and in this case lack of words, that the students of Newark are expendable and mean nothing to either of them.

    I hope we in Newark build something to honor Brenda’s life.

  9. What is Rashon Hasan’s agenda an advocate for our families or the Uncle T for Cami just need clarity? And Bob thanks for discussing White Privilege; Honestly!

  10. While both deaths are tragic and horrible, unfortunately, even though similar, the media is not at fault here. The race card is also not in effect. Two different states with two different ways of handling things, however, is. Also,in effect, is that in Virginia, the demographic is different than in Newark. Also, in effect, the schools responsibility legally to both students. If Newark admits to some responsibility for the loss, then her family has the right to sue for negligence, especially since she was differently abled. One death was tragic, the other forced a cover up. One required search and coverage, the other was a liability if uncovered. Either one is very sad, but race is not a factor here, responsibility is. Rest peacefully, both of you.

    Bob Braun: I understand your point but cannot agree that race was not a factor. I also hardly can condone the idea that fear of a lawsuit prevents a school district from meeting its responsibilities.

    1. Both of these cases are sad and tragic. These young women’s whole lives were ahead of them. Race and class do play a role on how these two cases were covered by the mainstream media. In inner city communities gun violence is an everyday occurrence that kills black and brown children, yet the nation does not mourn, like when this happens in a white suburban school or community. Race and class are behind the way the media covers gun violence and missing children. If these things happen in a white middle class neighborhood the mainstream media is on it for weeks. When it happens in poor black and brown neighborhoods it disappears from the news in a day or two, if it is covered at all. Down playing race and class is wishful thinking on the part of many who want to wish racism and classism away. What is being imposed on the citizens of Newark by the State and Cami Anderson would never be allowed in a white middle class NJ municipality. But Newark is predominantly a poor black and brown city, therefore it is allowed. As if Newark were a “Third World” colony of the American Empire where outsiders could come in to do and impose as they please without the consent of the natives.

  11. “Christie said nothing after the news of Brenda’s death was reported.” Chris Christie conversation with Cory Booker, “Heck, I got maybe six votes in Newark” as reported by Dale Rusakoff “Schooled” The New Yorker May 19, 2014.

    So it’s not incumbent to visit a church in Newark until it will help a Presidential run.
    Re the photo at the Newark Baptist church: Would someone kindly tell Christie that he and Kim G look like they’re doing the Ferguson, Missouri Unarmed gesture rather than “lifting up holy hands.”

    1. Not race at all and everyone reading this understands this fact- pure economics.

  12. I miss my lil cousin

    Bob Braun: I’m sorry. I know the pain continues. If you’d like to write more abut her, please do.

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