"There's a body hanging from a tree."
An anonymous call to the campus safety office early on the Monday morning after spring break brought the sort of news college officials are never truly ready for: A student -- outgoing, popular, the kind no one thought would do something like this -- had killed himself. Two years to the week after this tragedy, three student affairs professionals at Goucher College told the story of what happened and how the college responded -- and is still responding.
Student suicide is a growing issue of concern to colleges, with considerable controversy over colleges' responsibility for preventing these deaths. At this week's meeting in Indianapolis of ACPA: College Student Educators International, numerous sessions focused on prevention efforts and on questions related to student mental health. The Goucher session was intentionally different -- focused on what happens when a suicide does take place, which happens on hundreds of campuses nationwide.
Stacy Cooper Patterson, who was director of residence life at Goucher two years ago, said that while she applauded prevention efforts (and wanted to see more of them), it was also vital for colleges to talk about what happens when such efforts don't reach a student. "If you haven't dealt with it, your feeling is always, 'when?' " she said. At Goucher, the longest serving member of the student affairs staff in 2004 had been there 17 years, and no one could remember a student suicide.
As Patterson told the story of Tom, as she called him, she clearly moved an audience of people who had themselves faced student suicides, but realized that, as Patterson said, "each one is different."
Tom was a sophomore, a student who had friends on every dorm floor, a member of the cross country team and of an a cappella group. A few months before he killed himself, he had briefly seen a counselor, but he stopped going quickly and seemed happy. Over spring break, he had broken up with his girlfriend, and he was known to drink too much, but as an audience member noted, such characteristics hardly stand out among students.
On the last full day of his life, Tom, along with his fellow students at the residential liberal arts college just outside Baltimore, returned to the campus, where he spent time with friends watching movies and then IMed his friends until around 3 or 4 in the morning, giving no signs of danger. Then he wrote 17 notes to fellow students, telling them how much he cared for them and valued their time together, left them beside a burning candle, walked outside, and sometime between 4 and 7 a.m., hung himself on a tree in an area just outside the dorm -- an area that would be passed by student after student going to class.
Patterson was among the first people called and arrived quickly -- and quickly realized, she said, "how much you lose control" when a suicide takes place. When police arrived, they stunned Patterson by not immediately removing Tom from the tree. She realizes now, she said, that they had to treat the tree as a crime scene, but Goucher officials at the time were far more worried about the impact on students walking by and about the respect they wanted to show Tom, who had made an impact on many of them. After a while, they persuaded the officers to cover Tom's body with a tarp. But it took until 9:30 a.m. -- two and a half hours after the body was first noticed -- to get it taken down.
The college's student affairs staff immediately gathered and started reaching out to students, organizing an all-campus meeting at 12:30 that day and a vigil led by the campus chaplain at 10 that night. A campus events room was opened all night long -- staffed -- so that students could go to talk and be with someone. And student affairs staffers immediately made a list of "at risk" students who needed special attention or counseling. While caring for the students at the college, the staff also needed to get ready for the arrival of Tom's parents -- and to help them.
As Patterson and her colleagues described the events of the weeks that followed, they repeatedly talked about situations where there was no right answer, but some decisions needed to be made.
For instance, the college's spring formal was scheduled for the next weekend. Some students wanted the event called off, but many others wanted it to go ahead. Amanda Emery, director of student activities, said that with some trepidation, the college let the event go on, only to find "our worst fears realized," when students arrived "drunker than normal," many of them seeming determined to drink through their grief. Emery recalled spending the night trying to find those in need of medical attention, sending students home, and generally experiencing "a nightmare."
Emery is the adviser to the musical group that Tom sang with and felt close to him personally -- adding to her own grief over the incident. She fully understood the loss, but also felt she had to guide students to understand that "they had to go back to classes, that life had to go on."
Emery and Patterson both described students who reached out to one another and provided a lot of mutual support during the aftermath. But that support didn't go to everyone. They said that many of Tom's friends unfairly blamed his ex-girlfriend for his suicide -- "they needed to blame someone" -- meaning that the staff needed to reach out especially to her. After some leaves of absence, and seriously considering a transfer, she stuck it out at Goucher.
An unusual situation facing the team at Goucher was posed by the letters that Tom had left for his friends. The police took them, but gave them to Tom's parents, who turned them over to the college to distribute. After some consideration, the college did give them out, but it gathered all the students receiving them together so that they could receive the letters together, with counselors present.
A particularly delicate issue for the college was what to do about the tree where Tom killed himself. Within hours of his death, some students started to turn it into a shrine, leaving items connected to him in some way, photographs, and flowers. Also almost immediately, Patterson said, she started to hear from people who were deeply upset by the idea of the tree becoming a shrine. A student leader on campus approached her and urgently recounted how, at his high school, such a shrine after a suicide seemed to glamorize suicide and encouraged others who then harmed themselves. Patterson said that some administrators shared this concern, and wanted to be sure that the college did not send a message that suicide was an appropriate solution to students' problems.
Much of the debate played out with regard to the tree. Some students wanted a plaque put up, and pushed to keep adding items to their shrine. Others wanted it back to normal and some students talked about walking out of their way to avoid passing it. Others wanted the tree cut down.
In the end, the college said that the students had to stop leaving items at the tree, and those items that were there were gathered and given to Emery, who agreed to keep them so students could have access if they wanted. Students who wanted more of a marker at the tree were given permission to plant some flowers on one side of the tree. The flowers died, but the tree looks as it did before.