SMU Confronts Another Death

A missing student is found dead, in portable toilet, in apparent overdose. How can colleges prevent such tragedies?
May 18, 2007

Southern Methodist University is coping with its third death in less than six months after a student's body was found this week in a town outside Waco, Texas. While toxicology reports are still pending, evidence suggests the death resulted from an overdose, which would make it the second in recent memory there involving drugs.

Meaghan Bosch, 21, a junior English major, was found over 100 miles from Dallas, where SMU is located, in the small town of Hewitt. Construction workers discovered her on the floor of a portable toilet there on Monday morning, covered in a blanket, according to reports. Bosch's parents released statements to the press describing a recent change in her behavior, recurring depression and a newly formed cocaine habit. Police are not clear how exactly Bosch ended up in Hewitt.

Bosch's death came just two weeks after another student was found unconscious in a dorm room and later died. Authorities have not yet determined the cause of that death, which may have been related to a form of diabetes. The third student died of a drug overdose in December.

The most recent death occurred in the week between the end of finals and commencement this Saturday, which means that since most non-graduating students had already left, Bosch's death may have had less impact on campus than it otherwise would have. There has been relatively little activity regarding Bosch's death on Facebook, where students often create groups to memorialize recently lost classmates.

But at least one frequent commentator on SMU affairs -- the so-called "Phantom Professor," who blogs anonymously but is known to be a former writing instructor at the university -- weighed in this week. "What a sick, sick way for a young life to end," she wrote on Tuesday. "She lived one block from me in a complex of condo-apartments that on the outside looks posh and security-protected but that I have always heard is a haven of burglaries, drunken parties, drug dealing and other nefarious activities."

As expected, the deaths have raised the perennial issues of alcohol and substance abuse on college campuses, and whether universities are doing enough to proactively combat binge drinking and drug use. Insofar as drug use is a problem among youth, of course, it's one every college has to deal with.

The university is "slightly below" the national average in most categories of the Core Institute survey given out to its students, according to John Sanger of SMU's Center for Alcohol and Drug Abuse Prevention -- including use of alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, opiates and other drugs. But that hasn't stopped the university from gaining a reputation -- earned or not -- for having more than its share of wealthy students who focus on partying in various forms.

Ned Henry, a graduate student at SMU who is not currently on campus, said he believes students' easy access to "disposable money" and a lack of "concern for the rules" have partially contributed to the campus culture. "SMU doesn't seem to have just a party school image, but a 'who-cares' image," he said. "It's almost kind of like you feel untouchable."

William Finnin, the university's chaplain, said he believed the problem was endemic to a particular strain in youth culture that often starts before students enter college. "They come in streetwise and sometimes experienced from high school," he said. "It has to do with that sometimes lethal combination of ample resources" and time -- "there's so much disposable time."

Another factor is location. "You can get drugs in Dallas for two bucks a hit," Finnin said of the availability of heroin -- although, he said, cocaine is the "drug of choice" at SMU.

Sanger said the university had received a number of calls this week asking about drug use in the surrounding areas and expressing concern over "our students' possible exposure to the criminal element."

"Certainly there are some issues having to do with safety and security," he said. "We really won't know how we might make SMU a safer environment. We are in the middle of a big city."

But Southern Methodist is fighting back -- both against the reputation and against the drug problem in its student body, one, as Sanger emphasized, that exists on every campus. Since the death of Jacob Stiles in December at a fraternity house, the university has created programs or boosted existing initiatives. Some examples:

  • A pilot program called Because I Care, slated to be expanded this fall, aims to help students identify peers who are using drugs and engage the issue with them. Sanger said the university developed the program after it didn't find any similar efforts at other institutions. "What [students] felt like they needed was how do you go about intervening ... how do you confront them, how do you get support? Why should you do that?"
  • The TIPS (Training in Intervention Procedures) program, which helps administrators and student leaders to prevent alcohol-related problems by focusing on their everyday interactions with other students. After Stiles' death, according to Finnin, a drug component was added to the course, which was developed as a national program for establishments such as bars and restaurants that serve alcohol.
  • The university is hiring a full-time health educator beginning in the fall whose duties will include more proactive measures such as outreach efforts to students. "We function pretty much on a medical model where students have to come to the counselor," Finnin said. "This person will be involved with groups on campus ... dealing with the facts about chemicals and alcohol."
  • Already, new students are required to complete an online course called AlcoholEdu.

That Bosch's death is not the first in recent memory at Southern Methodist hasn't stopped it from having a particular resonance, whether because of how her body was found and the state it was in, or the sheer occurrence of two deaths in a single month.

Finnin also believes the Bosch family's reaction was unique. "Beside the components that are under investigation, it’s different in the sense that her family has been incredibly willing to share their insights about some of the issues she was dealing with. They’re the first ones who noted that she had an issue with chemicals. That is refreshing to me, because so often we encounter strident denial on the part of loved ones who have incredible difficulty in dealing with the reality of their loved ones’ use of chemicals."

Henry said that from his vantage point as a graduate student somewhat removed from the college scene, there was a sense of disbelief about Bosch's death because of the sheer number of tragedies at the university recently. But the reputation will always be there.

"It would be truly unreal if we were talking about Harvard," Henry said, implying that at certain prestigious schools the deaths would be seen as an exception rather than the rule. "'This is crazy but it's Harvard.' Well, this is crazy, and it's SMU. It's not actually that surprising."


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