Anna Ickes said she has always been aware of the potential danger in her surroundings, especially because she is a woman. It was just the way she was raised.
“I know that Auburn is a safe place, and I believe that I could protect myself, and I make conscious decisions to protect myself,” said Anna Ickes, senior in elementary education. “I personally don’t feel unsafe, but I do feel a little worried … and I know other people are worried.”
For a number of students The Plainsman spoke with, that worry stems from the disappearance of Aniah Blanchard — a Southern Union College student who was living in Auburn, studying and finishing homework, worrying about exams like many other students on the Plains.
She was reported missing over three weeks ago. Since that day, flyers have gone up, alerts have been sent and a suspect, Ibraheem Yazeed, has been taken into custody on a first-degree kidnapping charge.
As of publication, Blanchard is still missing.
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Students told The Plainsman that they’re concerned about kidnappings, about crimes such as sex trafficking, which they believe mostly happen in large cities like Atlanta.
Campus safety officials acknowledged that students are on edge but that campus is safe.
Auburn University Campus Safety and Security sent an alert on Nov. 9, saying they had “been made aware of rumors … circulating through social media about alleged human trafficking in the Auburn area.”
“We do not have any information to support these rumors,” Campus Safety and Security said in the email sent out to all students, faculty and staff.
Lorenza Dorsey, captain of the Auburn Police Division, said no police reports have been filed for an attempted kidnapping on campus.
“As much as social media can be advantageous to all of us, unfortunately, there are times when an account of a situation is added onto or misstated and disseminated before confirming information,” Dorsey said in an email.
Janiah Fryer, sophomore in pre-business, said when she saw the email, she still felt unsettled.
“We’re hyperaware with everything going on,” Fryer said. “Those alerts just make me nervous.”
On Nov. 11, many students were discussing through social media two suspicious interactions that took place on campus involving a man approaching a woman near the quad and three men approaching two women inside the library.
Campus Safety and Security sent an email around 9:30 p.m. that same day and addressed one of the incidents.
“Reports circulating on social media about an attempted kidnapping on campus near the Quad are not true,” Campus Safety and Security said in the email. “The Auburn Police Division did receive a report of suspicious activity, in which a male approached a female near the Quad, but there was no physical contact and no attempted kidnapping.”
Campus Safety and Security then assured people in the email that security was “in place in the areas of the residence halls and the library. Security officers in these areas and police officers assigned to campus will continue to patrol the campus, monitor for criminal activity and respond accordingly.”
The Plainsman received numerous emails that night and the following morning from students and parents concerned about the suspicious activity.
Kameron Austin, freshman in pre-business, said she was in the library and saw the men who spoke with two female students. The Plainsman corroborated her recollection of what supposedly happened in the library with two other students who told an account similar to Austin’s.
“The guys said they were from San Diego and asked the girls to fill out a survey,” Austin said. “The girls put in a fake number on a survey thing [the men] were asking them to fill out … and then the girls walked away from them … I turned away, too.”
Austin spoke with the female students who told her that they felt “freaked out” and “afraid.”
Campus Safety and Security didn’t address the library incident on Monday night, but it did send a tweet on Tuesday evening, confirming there was “a report of several females being approached by 3 young males in Ralph Draughon Library.”
The tweet also said the males asked the women to complete a survey and provide their Snapchat information; police responded but were not able to locate the males.
The incident that happened close to the quad involved a female student who reported being approached by a 30- to 40-year-old male with a heavy limp near Owen Hall, according to Campus Safety and Security. The man was wearing dark shoes, dark pants and a Hawaiian shirt, the tweet said.
The man motioned for her to come toward him; when she didn’t, he reached for her, and then followed a few feet behind her as she walked toward her vehicle. The tweet said the man walked away toward the Student Center.
Police responded but were not able to locate the male.
“We are providing additional information about these incidents in response to questions from the campus community,” Campus Safety and Security tweeted. “Prior messages about rumors were not intended in any way to discount individuals’ experiences.”
Kelvin King, executive director of Campus Safety and Security, said Auburn is a safe campus, but he emphasized that people should always be mindful of their surroundings and that if one feels uncomfortable about a situation or incident, they should call the police.
“We always ask: ‘If you see something, say something,’” King said.
The man who approached the female student near Owen Hall is “known to Auburn Police Division,” because he’s been approaching individuals recently, asking for money and rides, according to King.
“I believe [APD] is investigating that already,” King said.
Dorsey told The Plainsman that police are “in the process of confirming the identity of an individual who has been arrested numerous times for approaching people soliciting money, asking for rides, asking for someone to jump-start his vehicle.”
“He has approached several people recently, once again, perpetuating this scam,” Dorsey said.
King said Campus Safety and Security did receive inquiries from people on Monday and Tuesday about the two suspicious occurences on campus.
He said the tweets from Tuesday night were released because they wanted to update students about the incidents.
“We have a balance we need to keep,” King said. “Obviously we can’t comment on ongoing investigations, but to give some granular details concerning the incidents that happened on campus, we thought it was important to make sure that the student population and those that follow campus safety know that we’re releasing as much information as we can.”
King said he wanted to make sure students know that Campus Safety and Security works closely with APD and that their primary mission is to keep the campus safe.
“Auburn University is a safe community,” King said.
Dorsey reiterated that Auburn police “have had no reports of Auburn Students or anyone else in the community being forced into human trafficking.”
“As always we encourage anyone to contact us if any suspicious actions or individuals are observed. We have members of our staff on federal task forces ... in order to stay abreast and curtail these activities,” Dorsey said. “Obviously, we don’t assume it cannot happen and as a result monitor anything similar.”
This aura of fear in Auburn extends to black male students because some are being racially profiled.
Tyler Pruitt, sophomore in information systems management, said he was walking outside The Beacon on Nov. 8 around noon on his way to meet his girlfriend. Approaching him on the opposite end of the sidewalk were two females.
Pruitt said they kept staring at him. Just as they were about to cross paths, Pruitt said one of the women yelled, “You’re not going to kidnap any more girls!”
They ran away and Pruitt stood still, having been reminded that being black in Auburn brings a microscope of scrutiny and suspicion.
“They just assumed I was the guy that kidnapped [Blanchard],” he said. “I wasn’t really shocked, I was more, like, reminded of how Auburn is.”
Pruitt said he can no longer afford to walk around at night or go on his usual afternoon runs.
“It’s just not safe,” he said. “People are on edge, and a lot of black people are suffering because of that.”
For Ickes, rumors circulating around campus about human trafficking and strange men approaching women in the night, coupled with the disappearance of Blanchard, have made her more vigilant. She has found herself checking over her shoulder more often.
Now that the sun is setting much earlier in the evening, Ickes isn’t walking to the library as often as she usually does. She said she drives to coffee shops instead, so her car is easily accessible.
“I just don’t have to be alone in the dark,” she said.
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