October 14, 2011 — Half of today's University of Virginia students were still in high school when Morgan Dana Harrington disappeared two years ago. U.Va.'s administration and Harrington's parents are determined to make sure that her legacy doesn't fade with the passing years and that the lessons of her death reach new generations of students.
On Oct. 17, 2009, Harrington, a 20-year-old education major from Virginia Tech, had come to Charlottesville for a Metallica concert at the John Paul Jones Arena. She became separated from her friends and was last seen in an area near the Copeley Road bridge. Her remains were found the following January in a remote farm field south of Charlottesville.
DNA evidence provided a match to a possible suspect, who so far has not been apprehended. The investigation continues under the direction of the Virginia State Police. The point on the bridge where Harrington was last seen is marked by a plaque, installed last fall, and will be the site of a memorial event Monday at 10 a.m.
Dan and Gil Harrington continue their public presence as champions for justice in their daughter's homicide and advocates for women's safety. They recently launched a multi-media campaign, "Help Save the Next Girl," [link: ] to raise awareness about the vulnerability of young women to predators and to offer support to other victims' families.
"The major motivation for much of what we do is to solicit tips and information to help solve Morgan's homicide," Gil Harrington said. "In a parallel fashion we are trying to protect other young women."
Scrolling alerts on the website are not copyright-protected, she said. "Other families can utilize them and put their information in and have a Web presence up and rolling within a matter of days," she explained.
Meanwhile, funds are being raised for a scholarship in Harrington's name at the Virginia Tech-Carilion Medical School, where Dan Harrington is a faculty member.
Also, a school being built in Zambia will be named for her. Gil Harrington, a nurse, has traveled to Africa for several years with the Roanoke-based Orphan Medical Network International, or OMNI. "Morgan intended when she graduated to come to Africa with me with one of her friends," she said. "We thought it fitting that, though she will not be there, children will be educated in her honor."
Harrington said she speaks with the Virginia State Police special investigator every 10 days or so. "He expects my call," she said. "I'm waiting for him to call me in the middle of the night with good news. But crimes don't proceed like 'CSI' – there's not a big 'aha' in 45 minutes."
Patricia M. Lampkin, U.Va. vice president and chief student affairs officer, said any intervention the night of Harrington's disappearance might have altered the course of events. In the aftermath of her death and the death in May 2010 of U.Va. fourth-year student Yeardley Love, Lampkin sees a change at the University.
"We’re really emphasizing bystander behavior, and that's the biggest change I see at the University," she said.
At new-student orientation this summer, Dean of Students Allen Groves put it into very clear language. "If you're worried, do something," he told the students. "There's nothing wrong with dialing 911."
Lampkin will emphasize that message with an email to students coinciding with the two-year anniversary of Harrington's disappearance. "We have to take care of each other," she said.
Lampkin said she sees evidence that the message is getting through. A student-initiated program, Let's Get Grounded, has trained more than 1,000 students, faculty and staff in how to respond, safely and effectively, in difficult or dangerous situations. Lampkin said she has received a half dozen emails this fall, students worried about someone else or writing to make sure someone would follow up on a report.
It's difficult to show that a more serious incident is avoided by intervention, she said. That's what strikes her about the Harringtons' continuing commitment to education and advocacy.
"They've adjusted their messaging along the way and kept up their energy," she said. "That's difficult to do not knowing whether you've been successful. We'll never know for sure if they were, but if they have saved one person, that's impressive."
Gil Harrington said she doesn't have to know. "Maybe some girl saw one of those ads, and decided to take a friend with her. You drop a seed and you don't know what will germinate and sprout. You just have to hope."