Parents Sue Over Truman State Suicides

They claim a fellow member of Alpha Kappa Lambda at Truman State University prompted their sons and three others to commit suicide -- and that the university and fraternity knew he was a threat.

August 6, 2019
 

The parents of two men who died by suicide and who were students at Truman State University in Kirksville, Mo., filed a lawsuit against the university and the Alpha Kappa Lambda fraternity July 31, maintaining that both were aware of their sons’ depression and suicidal tendencies and of the fellow fraternity member who allegedly encouraged them to end their lives.

The lawsuit is also against Brandon Grossheim, a former Truman State student and member of AKL’s Xi chapter at the university, whom the victims’ parents assert gave “step-by-step directions” to their sons and others on how to handle depression, including “advice on how to commit suicide,” according to the complaint, which cites six total counts of negligence and wrongful death. Grossheim allegedly had personal connections and contact with the two named victims, AKL members Alex Mullins and Josh Thomas, another unnamed AKL member and Truman State student, and two nonstudents, who also died by suicide between 2016 and 2017 in the Kirksville area.

Truman State “knew or should have known” Grossheim was a dangerous person because of statements he made, said Nicole Gorovsky, the families’ attorney. Grossheim called himself “peacemaker” and a “superhero,” and said that people who struggle with depression gravitate toward him, the complaint states. Other AKL members told police they had “problems” with Grossheim, and he was allegedly wearing one of the victims’ clothing after his death, the suit said.

“This tragedy was preventable,” said a statement from Gorovsky Law, the plaintiffs' lawyers.

Both Truman State and the national fraternity released statements after the complaint was filed, in which they disagreed with the allegations and said they will “vigorously” defend themselves against the lawsuit.

“As the litigation proceeds, it will become clear that the university is not responsible for the deaths of these students,” wrote Warren Wells, Truman State’s general counsel, in a statement.

Grossheim did not answer a request for comment made to the phone number associated with his Alton, Ill., address.

The University’s Duty

In order for Truman State to be held liable for the students’ deaths, there would need to be a clear opportunity and failure for the university to meet its “duty to prevent” the suicides, said Brett Sokolow, CEO and president of TNG, the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management Group.

The university or its counselors would have had to be aware that the students were acutely suicidal and had a high probability of taking their own lives, Sokolow said, or know of Grossheim’s “intent to aid and encourage” the victims toward suicide, as the lawsuit alleges. Even then, Mullins, Thomas and a third victim ended their lives at the AKL chapter house, which is owned by the fraternity’s national organization, The Kansas City Star reported, not the university, making it more difficult to blame Truman State, Sokolow said. Thomas did live in student housing prior to and at the time of his death, according to the suit, but his body was found in the AKL house. The two other victims also died off campus.

Gorovsky Law wrote that both Truman State and the fraternity’s national headquarters were aware that Mullins and Thomas suffered from depression and that the “situation had been swept under the rug.” The university allegedly held a “short symposium on suicide,” but details about Grossheim’s proximity to the deaths were not shared with parents or the public, Gorovsky wrote. Gorovsky was not able to provide the date of the symposium and did not know whether AKL members were in attendance.

Truman State’s public relations office could not immediately confirm details about the symposium, but if it did occur, this could be one way the university accomplishes its “duty to prevent,” Sokolow said. These events can provide information like symptoms of depression and suicide for students to be aware of and university or local mental health resources available to them.

Colleges and universities are typically aware of patterns of suicide on campus that occur within social groups, said Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education. While it may be difficult for universities to know about a student’s specific intention or plan to take their own life, “if there’s a pattern of behavior in a particular group, you would think that the university would ramp up its programming.” (He was not commenting on the Truman State case specifically.)

Mullins and Thomas sought treatment through Truman State’s University Counseling Services before ending their lives, the complaint states. Mullins began having regular counseling sessions in February 2016, but he missed several appointments starting in June 2016. The university “emailed Mullins to follow up once or twice about his missed appointments but did not call him or otherwise make any attempt to reach out to him or do any welfare checks … [counseling services] simply closed Mullins’ file due to his no shows in early July 2016,” about one month prior to his death, the lawsuit states.

“Counseling centers don’t have the resources to track down every student,” Sokolow said. “A lot depends on how much the counselors knew and how dire it was for the student. At the end of the day, if the student is acutely suicidal and doesn’t want help, that is their choice. The counseling center can’t call them and say, ‘You have to show up’ -- they can’t make them come.”

As for Thomas, it was “common knowledge” in the AKL fraternity that he suffered from depression and that he received “professional counseling and mental health treatment through [Truman State],” according to the complaint. AKL members also knew Thomas was openly gay, which caused tension between him and others in the fraternity. Around the time of Thomas’s death, he texted one AKL member, “You’re the reason I want to kill myself,” and the two had a physical altercation, the complaint states. Thomas also attempted to end his life a month prior to his death, during the university’s spring break, which was “reported to the entire AKL fraternity.”

To implicate the fraternity, the plaintiffs would need to prove the property’s landlord was aware that members of the chapter and those living in the house were in danger, Sokolow said, but in cases like these, usually organizations are not involved. Rather, the person “prompting someone to suicide could be seen as doing harm.”

Brother-on-Brother Harm

Grossheim, 22, was last enrolled at Truman State in fall 2016, wrote Travis Miles, the university’s communications coordinator, in an email. He was not a student at the time of Thomas’s death in April 2017, but the two were “known to be close friends.” Grossheim resided at an off-campus apartment building at the time, the complaint states.

The three unnamed victims in the complaint -- another AKL fraternity member and two Kirksville residents in their early 20s, a man and woman -- also ended their own lives and allegedly had connections with Grossheim. In four of the five suicides near Truman State, Grossheim was the one to find the victims’ bodies or lead police to them, and Thomas’s body was found near a scrap of paper with Grossheim’s contact information on it, the lawsuit states.

According to the complaint, Grossheim was AKL’s “house manager” and had access to the rooms in the chapter house where the three AKL members were found dead. He was also allegedly the manager for his apartment building, where the fourth male victim lived. The Kansas City Star reported that Grossheim did not graduate and was not removed from the university. He now lives in Alton, Ill., according to court records.

“When Alex [Mullins] died, our hearts and our world split wide open; at college, in a ‘brotherhood,’ you think your kids are ‘safe and cared for,’” wrote Melissa Bottorff-Arey, Mullins’s mother, in a statement. “Within just months there were four more young people gone. There were too many similarities, one person in common and so many questions … It’s time for answers.”

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