When 18-year-old Joshua Robert Helm fell seven floors off a window ledge out of a freshman residence hall at University of North Carolina at Charlotte last month, campus officials questioned whether the death was preventable.
They were already planning upgrades to 40-year-old residence halls like the one from which Helm fell, where windows partially opened from the inside because the building lacked fire sprinklers until only a few years ago. The college believes the incident poses little legal risk, said John D. Bland, director of public relations, but administrators are still determining whether the window designs on new or renovated buildings need better safety measures.
“When an incident or an accident like this happens, that definitely gets our attention,” Bland said. “When we’re evaluating the types of windows, it’ll have an impact for sure.”
Of the dangers facing students, the chances of falling from a building may seem very small, but Helm’s case isn’t unique. A string of students have died or been seriously injured across the country after falling out of on-campus residence halls or off-campus apartment buildings and fraternity houses during the past month. While each case comes with its own set of questions and circumstances, tragedies tend to force colleges to re-examine their own safety standards, size up risk and sometimes fight off lawsuits.
Student safety task forces started last fall by the Arizona Board of Regents, which oversees state universities, are now taking a closer look at student drinking and the safety of off-campus apartments after two students from the state’s public colleges accidentally fell to their deaths in the past three weeks.
Eighteen-year-old Arizona State University student Naomi McClendon fell 10 floors off the balcony of an off-campus apartment in late March. Surveillance video showed that she had likely been drunk when she entered the complex.
At the University of Arizona, 19-year-old freshman Michael Evan Anderson fell off a 20-foot metal cooling tower on the roof of a residence hall earlier this month.
“It is particularly upsetting that we had this happen not once but twice in the last two weeks, so the task forces are considering these kinds of incidents that have the most terrible outcomes,” Eileen I. Klein, president of the Board of Regents, said in an interview. “We think we at least have a chance to talk about what improvements can be made in terms of making students aware.”
The committees, run out of each of the state’s public colleges, will make formal recommendations by June, but the recent deaths have “added a little more urgency to all of our work,” Klein said.
The higher education risk management group United Educators found that falls from heights made up 9 percent of the more than 500 claims that stemmed from injuries in residence halls between 2003 and 2007. That small proportion of claims, however, still made up 59 percent of what colleges paid out in total from the claims, which included assaults and overdoses in residence halls.
At Pennsylvania State University alone, seven people have fallen or jumped from buildings on or near campus in the past 18 months.
Some of those incidents involved heavy drinking or drugs, a reality that Temple University looked to combat when it canceled its annual spring fling event last year after a 19-year-old student from another college fell to her death at a off-campus house party during the event the year before.
Those kinds of incidents – and all student safety issues like building access – are what “keep college administrators up at night,” said Patricia A.R. Martinez, president of the Association of College and University Housing Officers – International. She said residence halls have been designed with more safety issues in mind lately.
“There’s always the concern as far as who has access to roofs,” she said. “You also see many more facilities now that are built without balcony access.”
Colleges have started retrofitting more dorms to get up to local safety codes over the past decade, said Brett A. Sokolow, president and chief executive officer of the NCHERM Group, a law firm and consulting group for colleges. Many of those upgrades are relatively low-cost, but colleges still have to work to curb the potential for falls when student drinking happens in high-rise residence halls. “For campuses that allow students to congregate on those balconies, their lawsuit is just around the corner,” he said.
Some falls have happened well off campus. Three weeks ago, a 19-year-old exchange student at Northwest College in Wyoming fell from a hotel balcony in Colorado after eating a weed cookie.
Other falls have happened near campus, such as when a University of Washington student suffered serious but not life-threatening injuries after he fell from a private fraternity house window last week. Norman G. Arkans, a university spokesman, said the college has gone into private off-campus Greek houses to recommend new security measures, but cannot enforce them.
Fraternity houses that are managed by national or alumni organizations but owned by universities, unlike the ones at University of Washington, have become a hotspot for liability on college campuses, said Douglas E. Fierberg, an attorney who specializes in fraternity death issues.
He said while most student falls are unique, many fraternity houses are not kept up to code, which can spell disaster when chapters combine outdated buildings with heavy drinking. If universities own the building and know about drinking problems in fraternity houses, they open themselves up to even more risk, he added. “The exposure of the university extends beyond the physical boundary of its property,” Fierberg said.
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