A set of documents that a Wyoming community college tried to bar a local newspaper from publishing were made public Wednesday, and indicate that the college’s president mishandled a response to the suicidal behaviors of a student while leading a 2008 class trip to Costa Rica.
Citing the student’s rights under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, administrators at Laramie County Community College had, since April, been attempting to stop the Wyoming Tribune Eagle from obtaining -- and publishing a news story on – the internal report produced by the college’s Care Team, a group of faculty and staff who help “individuals of concern” gain access to counseling and other support services.
Laramie County District Judge Peter G. Arnold issued a restraining order against the paper last week pending further examination of the case. The college said it worried about violating FERPA and losing access to federal funding, but after reviewing the case, the judge ruled the college’s concerns were “purely speculative and not supported by any evidence before the court.”
The college’s public relations office all referred questions to Brenda Lyttle, chair of its board of trustees. Administrators and the board were resistant to releasing the report, she said, because it “dealt with a student and … we wanted a judge to make a decision about whether we could release it.”
Based on written statements submitted by several students and the college’s president, Darrel L. Hammon, and included with the report, the Care Team found that the student had “exhibited behaviors that required a trained professional that understands mental health disorders to manage the situation,” it wrote in a letter to Hammon. On the first night of the trip, Hammon said in his account, the student "took more than her normal prescription and became, consequently, hyperactive." From then on, he asked another student, who had been trained as an emergency medical technician, to be the first student’s “pharmacist” and ensure that she took the right dosage. Over the course of the trip, the same student repeatedly made suicidal statements, threatened to run into a forest and not return, and tried to buy a large knife at a gift shop.
College employees on the trip should have notified the Care Team and the college’s director of counseling “from the onset of a crisis involving a student of concern, to provide immediate assistance and support,” the letter said. The team, it continued, “needs to be utilized and therefore empowered by administration.”
Though Hammon is not identified by name in the letter, the student statements and Hammon’s own account point to his misconduct. In its Wednesday story, the Tribune Eagle said its reporting indicated that “the administrator in question was Hammon.”
Instead of notifying the Care Team or seeking medical help in Costa Rica, college employees asked other students on the trip to keep tabs on the suicidal student. Students, the Care Team wrote, “felt pressure to assist” because of “the power differential that existed in the relationship between administration and student participants.”
Lyttle said she was “not in a position to comment” on whether Hammon or other administrators had properly handled the student’s suicidal behaviors. The board, she said, had not yet met to “discuss what’s in the report or if there’s any action we should take.”
The Care Team said the student should have been sent home after it was clear that she was suicidal, but suggested that, in future, the college take steps to prevent similar incidents, including a more thorough selection of chaperones and training for those chaperones.
Though the trip was for a biology class, it was led by Hammon, who holds a Ph.D. in English. One of his daughters, who the Tribune Eagle reported was not listed on the trip’s roster, was one of the chaperones