Image of Sanford stadium at the University of Georgia Athens campus.
Image of Sanford stadium at the University of Georgia Athens campus.
Savannah Hayes

Laken Riley: a woman’s story

Women go out having to exert energy wondering if they will return home safely

Over the winter break I  made plans with one of my friends to visit the University of Georgia Athens campus for a tour as we are looking for more information to commit to a college for next year. However, the day before our expected tour we heard the news of a death on campus, and we made the decision to cancel our trip as the campus would not be the same as any normal day.

Laken Hope Riley was a recent graduate of UGA as of May 2023, and she had started nursing school at Augusta University. On  Thursday, Feb. 22, she went on a run, which most likely seemed like any average day for her. Riley did everything right, including running in broad daylight and notifying a friend of her whereabouts.

Even against all these odds, Riley’s friends ended up calling the UGA Police Department later that same day with concerns, as Riley had not returned at the time she had originally specified.

According to UGA’s official Instagram page, the police responded approximately 10 minutes later in search of Riley and they concluded she was deceased when they arrived.  Foul play was immediately suspected.

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Women can only do so much to protect themselves against the truly unknown. We can carry self defense tools, let trusted people know our location at all times or take self defense classes. It is placed on women to take control of their fate when often it is not their fault if something happens. Why is the first response when someone finds out about a woman getting attacked, to ask if they had taken their personal safety seriously? It is the same thing when a woman says they do not feel safe they are questioned with statements like: why do you want me to walk you to your car and do you have pepper spray?

“I realized it’s something that could happen anywhere. It’s extremely tragic and saddening but also a one in a million experience. I feel just as safe going to college as I have felt in high school which is definitely not 100% safe,” senior Ella Hamilton said.

I realized it’s something that could happen anywhere. It’s extremely tragic and saddening but also a one in a million experience. I feel just as safe going to college as I have felt in high school which is definitely not 100% safe.”

— Ella Hamilton

As a female senior about to graduate and head to college the news of Riley’s case has really stuck with me. I regret to admit that as soon as I heard the news I concluded that I will be getting some form of a self defense tool to take with me next year, and I would most definitely be notifying my friends about my location. And as a girl who likes to go on runs, I was not too sure if I would be doing so next year, and I might stick to the treadmill. This is the sad reality for women and girls everywhere feeling as though they have to change their routines and day to day lives to be better equipped for what the world throws at them, but really shouldn’t the problem be fixed at the root. We need to stop blaming the victims for something that they cannot control.

What truly pains me was that many other girls at McIntosh felt the same way as me in that they needed to change routines to feel safer.

“I plan on carrying pepper spray, possibly a taser, sharing my location with my parents and constantly communicating with close friends about my location. I’m not going to go out at night a lot, and definitely not alone,” senior Lana Mayes said.

McIntosh junior Ava Cook has a similar viewpoint as Mayes and many other women.

“I plan on carrying pepper spray and some self defense weapons on me,” Cook said.

A suspect, age 26, was arrested the next day, and was charged with felony murder, false imprisonment, kidnapping and concealing the death of another. There was no evidence he knew Riley. The police department has concluded that it was a “crime of opportunity,” and notified the public that there has not been a homicide at UGA in about 30 years.

Additionally, according to Channel 2 News, “officials confirmed… that Ibarra entered the United States illegally.”

The sad truth is that it is now easier to find information about Riley’s attacker than it is to find information about Riley herself. The message behind Riley’s story is lost in all of the stories regarding the immigration status of her attacker.

“I think, at this time, it’s important to remember that an action committed by one member of a group does not define said group as a whole. An undocumented immigrant was responsible for the murder of an innocent woman, but that doesn’t mean all undocumented immigrants are dangerous threats. We shouldn’t politicize this tragedy and use it to perpetuate harmful stereotypes,” Mayes said.

Screenshot of UGA’s Instagram story relaying the universities plan to delegate for money to campus security

According to UGA’s Instagram page, the university announced on Feb. 27 that in support of future campus safety, they will include more active measures totaling about $7.3 million dollars towards strengthening security. They plan to spend the money on numerous things such as increased campus security, more security cameras, lighting upgrades, license plate readers and above all the “installation of combined security camera blue light call box systems” throughout campus. This money adds to the over 16 million dollars already enforcing measures.

“I’m very pleased with their efforts to ramp up security and campus safety measures after the homicide. It is clear that the administration sees this as a huge issue, one that they are eager to work on to ensure such violence never happens on campus again. I think any money invested towards the safety of students is money well spent,” Mayes said.

This universal fear that women have of existing is not only locked in at college campuses, but everywhere from grocery stores to hospitals to high schools.

“There is always that fear of something happening to me on a campus, but after recent events I feel a little less safe,” Cook said.

Hamilton notes similar feelings in regard to her personal security and protection as Cook.

“I feel like as a student in America of course there have been times I have feared for my safety, though I have never experienced an extreme fear,” Hamilton said.

What more should society want from a girl for her to feel safe in her own skin?

Riley did everything right by today’s standards, and yet she still was not truly safe.

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About the Contributor
Savannah Hayes
Savannah Hayes, News Editor
McIntosh High School senior Savannah Hayes is serving her second year as the McIntosh Trail’s news editor. Hayes has been on the Trail staff since 2021 and has enjoyed every moment of working with the staff. Just this past school year, Hayes won three awards for her writing given to her by the Georgia Scholastic Press Association (GSPA). Hayes won superior writing for In-Depth News, Features and Social Media Storytelling. She can not wait for another marvelous year on the Trail staff. Hayes has received countless accolades throughout both high school and middle school. Hayes has been a part of National Honor Society (NHS) since 2023, Science National Honor Society (SNHS) since 2023, Beta Club since 2021, National English Honor Society (NEHS) since 2021 and National Society of High School Scholars (NSHSS) since 2022. In middle school, Hayes was in Jr. Beta Club and received the Silver Service Hour Award in eighth grade and the Bronze Service Hour Award in seventh grade. Every semester since her freshman year, Hayes has been on the Gold Honor Roll. Outside of the Trail, Hayes works as a volunteer intern at Zoo Atlanta. She took AP Biology and is currently taking Anatomy and Physiology at McIntosh to help achieve her goal of majoring in Animal Science. Hayes is currently the High Brass Section Leader of the Spirit of McIntosh Marching Band, of which she has been a member since 2020. Hayes has played the trumpet in various concert bands since 2017. As a Dual Enrollment, Student Hayes is currently attending Clayton State and has been a part of the program since 2022.
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  • Meghan PogueMar 6, 2024 at 7:53 pm

    An excellent article and truly hits at the core of the feelings we all have as women. Often it’s overlooked because it’s just our everyday experience. Great job, Savannah!

  • Beth GrahamMar 6, 2024 at 7:25 pm

    Excellent story! Thank you.

  • JenniferMar 4, 2024 at 2:30 pm

    Great story, Savannah!

  • Ella HamiltonMar 1, 2024 at 9:52 pm

    This is so good!!!