When a Student Dies

College leaders need to consider a range of issues when responding to the tragedies that take place every year.
April 6, 2007

The list is always too long.

In the last week alone, one University of Minnesota student died after falling from the third floor of a parking ramp, three days after another Minnesota student drowned. One Northeastern University student died Tuesday after falling down the stairs of a bar, leaving another university to cope with its second tragedy in a matter of days: On Saturday, a Northeastern freshman died of internal injuries after crashing her snow tube into a tree while on a university -organized trip to a New Hampshire ski resort. At Norfolk State University this weekend a student died of a stabbing, at the University of Idaho, one died of gunshot wounds. A Texas Southern University student suffered a fatal case of meningitis, while Rider University is recoiling from a highly publicized incident in which a freshman died Friday morning of alcohol intoxication after a night of drinking in a fraternity house. A Rice University student died after being found unconscious Saturday, and Iowa State University held a candlelight vigil Wednesday night in memory of a missing sophomore whose body was found in an on-campus lake Tuesday afternoon.

Sad as it is, a truth of the matter is that as long as there have been students, there have been student deaths. The public protocol is depressingly familiar: The public statement of condolence, the parade of grief counselors, the on-campus memorial service. But behind the scenes, the gears typically grind into overtime duty, as institutional leaders try to balance the need to tell all students what happened with the need to respect privacy rights, and the sometimes conflicting needs of campus friends of the deceased and family members arriving on campus. All the while, officials are watching their words -- offering heartfelt expressions of support and concern while being mindful of the potential risk of litigation -- and furiously coordinating a team to cross all the leftover t's and dot the remaining i's. Because, as anyone whose been left to tie the innumerable loose ends following the death of a loved one can tell you, all those little details of living -- the outstanding bills, the library fines, the glossy solicitations for donations -- can prove unbearable for a family dealing with grief, perhaps particularly so when the death is utterly unexpected.

And, of course, on top of all that, there are often ongoing police investigations to deal with, safety precautions to adopt, and sometimes even campus health emergencies that must be confronted promptly, and with authority.

"We call it the 'cool-head, warm-heart' response," says Robb Jones, senior vice president and general counsel for claims management and risk research at United Educators, an insurance company for colleges. Campus leaders, Jones says, must be careful to do the right thing -- notifying the next of kin, making arrangements for them to come to campus, appointing a liaison, expressing their sympathy, showing their support -- while making sure nothing falls through the cracks so that "two months down the road you're not sending bills for overdue library books or tuition payments."

"In a very pragmatic sense, that can be important, but we emphasize it's also the right thing to do," Jones says. He adds that by providing the support to the family that standards of human decency would require, the university could also by default minimize its risk of a lawsuit in an increasingly litigious culture. Just Monday, the Associated Press reported that the parents of a student who died from injuries sustained during a Dartmouth College ski program filed a $20 million lawsuit against the college.

"One of the best outgrowths of the caring is that maybe you don't get sued," Jones says, "but that's not the most important thing."

In the immediate aftermath of a tragedy, the experts agree: The family comes first. Honoring the family's wishes proves to be absolutely paramount, says Willie H. Marshall, associate provost for student services and dean of students at Texas Southern University. For instance, he says university leaders should know a family's wishes before deciding whether to send an e-mail about the death to all students, or to take a more targeted approach in alerting various segments of the campus body. "We make contact with the family and so forth. We always like to know the kinds of things that can be done," Marshall says, adding that, for instance, many families place great value on a posthumously-awarded degree or even something so simple as obtaining a copy of their child's transcript. "These are mementos."

Some colleges have far greater experience dealing with student death than others. Ann H. Franke, a lawyer and president of Wise Results, which advises colleges on risk management, tells of one dean she knows who calls herself "Dean of Death" because she typically has to notify families several times per semester. At mega-Pennsylvania State University, the " Guidelines for Reporting a Student Death" outline a whole range of steps, from e-mailing the president, who sends a condolence letter, to alerting the financial aid office,  to changing the home address recorded with the registrar's office to 112 Shields Building "with the purpose of preventing inappropriate university-to-student correspondence from being sent home."

Meanwhile, at the other extreme, the University of California at Merced, a research university that opened its doors in 2005, just had a regrettable first last month when its first student died, of a fall. "Our protocols for the most part, we followed," says Charles Nies, the university's assistant vice chancellor for student affairs. "But we're here to take care of students' emotional well-being. That's a big part of the process that isn't necessarily written down in protocols -- how do you capture that dynamic?"

At Merced, administrators held multiple town meetings in the aftermath of the student death, helping attendees understand how grief may uniquely affect them as college students. "Life needs to go on because the next morning classes are going to happen and you still need to do homework assignments. How do you deal with the emotional upheaval while everything else seems to be going on?" Nies asks.

In terms of working with professors to help them manage grief in the classroom, Susan L. Prieto-Welch, director of counseling and psychological services at Purdue University -- where students came back from spring break this semester to news that three of their classmates had died -- describes a need for an individualized approach. "We talk about how to provide students a forum in which they are able to talk about their thoughts and reactions to this," says Prieto-Welch. How the instructor accomplishes that can vary based on their comfort level and even their own grief; on some occasions, she says, faculty members have requested that a counselor come to class to facilitate the discussion.

Managing privacy concerns also consistently proves to be a big challenge across the board. Daniel Wolter, a spokesman at the University of Minnesota, describes a situation last year in which an international student was killed in a bike accident. Since college officials were unable to reach the parents right away, they were likewise unable to disclose the identity of the student to a (cell phone-laden) campus body. “To balance the human interest and the legal interest -- ultimately in the end, it all seems to work out, but it’s a struggle every time," Wolter says.

Federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act protections die with the student, explains Franke of Wise Results. Instead, campus leaders have to consider their state privacy laws in formulating their responses not only to requests for information by the media and students, but also requests from families, such as a request to access a deceased student's e-mail account.

In the best-managed responses, a university will continue to maintain contact with the student's family years after the death, Franke says, ideally assigning an employee to send a note or a small bouquet of flowers each year on a birthday or anniversary -- "something personal that recognizes the passage of another year."

Meanwhile college leaders lucky enough not to have a tragedy on their hands right this moment should be proactive, cautions Sheldon E. Steinbach, a lawyer in the higher education practice at the Washington firm Dow Lohnes. On the preventative front, college leaders need to be ever-vigilant in tracking tragedies at other colleges across the country and taking actions to make sure those incidents couldn't easily repeat themselves on their campuses, he says. “I’d turn around and say, well what are we doing about X? Could this happen here?" he says. Such vigilance, he adds, is especially key when an institution faces high turn-over and the loss of institutional memory that results.

“With the enormous turnover in personnel in some areas," Steinbach says, "there’s a real need to remind new administrators of materials and protocols that are available."



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