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Student Deaths at the University of Hawai’i: Part III

It's been over two weeks since a freshman at UHM died on campus after falling from one of the dorms, and administration has communicated nothing to the larger community about the event or resources students and faculty can access if they are troubled by it. Students and faculty should not find out via gossip and surmise.

Susan Schultz

On Monday, March 28, I was preparing to travel to Los Angeles for a writer’s conference. I got up that morning to open my email, expecting the usual departmental announcements, notes from friends, the typical morning haul. Instead, the following subject line caught my eye:

Crisis Intervention for Students Affected by a Tragedy

The email below the header came from the mother of a freshman (whom I’ll refer to as Mother #1); she wondered how to get help for her son, who needed to process the loss of a friend. On that Saturday nighttwo weeks ago now—a young woman died at one of the dorms on campus. This was the first I’d heard of it. She found me because google answers searches for “student death at UH” with a link to my op-ed about the need for a student death protocol. She hadn’t found a central site at UHM that listed resources to use in such events, probably because there is none. The website needs major renovation. If you are faculty, to cite just one example, and you enter off the main page through “Faculty & Staff” to look for “support services,” you don’t find the Counseling Service. Instead, you find the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. That link was put there after I requested that the counseling center be made easier to find. Such out-sourcing seems inappropriate, especially since many students need counseling for other reasons than suicidal ideation.

UHM fails to communicate student (and other) deaths to faculty and students (sometimes even family), fails to inform the community of resources to help in grieving losses, and fails in prevention. And so we find out about tragedies on social media: after this last event, I found an announcement posted on Facebook to the Kamehameha Schools alumni site, alongside a young woman’s sweet selfie: “We have lost a part of our ‘ohana. Kalena Medeiros, class of 2015 (Hawai’i Campus) passed away early yesterday morning. Please keep her and her family in your prayers. Thank you and Happy Easter.” This was posted on March 27. I sent the note on to our interim Chancellor, along with a request that he say something to the larger community. He responded with a note about needing family notification and permission to do so, which is the usual way to say no, at least not yet. It’s crucial to notify families, but students are not children. They have lives and friends and loved ones of their own.

According to the Vice Chancellor, the Dean of Students, and the head of the Counseling Center, students affected by tragedies on campus are targeted for communication and help. There are resident counselors, as well as RAs. Recently, I met with a woman I’ll call Mother #1 and her son, who is a friend of the deceased woman’s boyfriend and his roommate (now moved into another room, largely because Mother #2 contacted me and I sent the message on to the Chancellor). I later heard back that the Vice Chancellor for Students had called the mother and that “she seemed grateful” (the VCS’s words). The son had never received an email to inform him about where to get counseling. As in many of these stories, the targeting of affected students is so very fine that it misses friends on other floors of a dorm, or outside the network of clubs and activities.

The deceased woman was a student at KCC, not at UHM, and she was living with her boyfriend in the dorm. Like the last two people to fall to their deaths from the dorms, she was not one of our students. Her lack of affiliation with our university is no reason to ignore her death. KCC has made no announcement either. The only reason that the death and serious injuries of the two men who fell this past August became known to us was that the story broke internationally. It was the case of a Good Samaritan dying to try to save someone who intended to kill himself. The Good Samaritan died, while the suicidal man survived. At the time, UHM’s communications person responded to the media, but the administration said nothing to the campus community.

There have been other deaths. I find out about them because people know of the work I do, or because I rub two stories together and discover the actual story. So what to do? I and the Compassion Hui, composed of over 50 faculty and staff from all corners of the campus, have advocated widely for a student death protocol, more suicide prevention, and better publicity for existing resources. We organized and held a Celebration of Life in February to mark the passing of members of the community over the past year or so. We send out occasional emails to the faculty list. We are a DIY function of the community, filling in for the huge gaps in administrative churning. In the Fall, we hope to hold an “Out of the Darkness Walk” against suicide. But we’re hardly going rogue. Consider that other universities, dozens of them, do it better. I enumerated a few in my last piece on institutional compassion for The Independent, but here’s a new one from Tufts University.

This letter follows what seems to be standard practice at universities that do this well. Here’s an outline.

—An announcement of the death with brief description of the deceased.
—Information about counseling at the dorm and a meeting to support students (that very evening).
—Information about the counseling center.
—The promise to follow up with announcement of a memorial service.
—An expression of condolences to the student’s family and friends.
—The names of five prominent people on campus, from the president to the chaplain, who sign the letter.
—Four additional resources for students.
—Resources for faculty.

This message was sent out several hours after the young man died. More recently, the University of Texas-Austin’s administration sent out email after email to its community after the murder of a freshman there. Then they posted all their communications on the front page of their website, under the sober headline, “A Tragedy on Our Campus.”

In the meantime, it’s been over two weeks since Kalena Medeiros died on our campus, and we’ve heard nothing. The email that the Compassion Hui sent out the other day to inform faculty of resources alluded to the recent tragedy and was met with many bewildered responses. Many responded with thank yous for sending information about mental health resources on campus. Faculty simply do not know about them, or even where to seek them out. Purdue Psychology Prof. Heather Servaty-Seib, with whom I spoke the other day, specializes in student bereavement issues. She noted that no one is supposed to die in college. It’s a subject no one wants to confront. And yet her campus has a bereavement policy for students. If they are grieving, they must be allowed to hand in late work. Of course she and colleagues and students got the policy not by arguing along humanitarian lines, but by pointing out the bottom line: You retain students better if you give them space and time to grieve.

Mother #1’s son will be leaving UHM at the end of this semester and will attend another school, one that is smaller and more community-oriented. It’s a real loss to UHM; he’s a lively, warm, smart young man. One of my colleagues who taught him in honors composition described him as one of the best students she’s ever had. The boyfriend of the deceased woman has dropped out. Doubtless other students are wondering what to do next. Counselors at our center are doubtless doing their very best to keep students going. But there are too few of them, and their services are poorly advertised. As Prof. Servaty-Seib pointed out, sometimes counseling is not what’s needed after a tragedy. The creation of support groups is. Where are our support groups? If they exist, how do we find them? She also pointed me to an on-line resource for grieving students, here.

After opening my first email of Monday, March 29, and trying to deal with this tragedy on our campus, I opened another. From that message, sent by a friend in the History department who is a member of our group, I learned that an international student who had worked for my small press for a year and who house sat for us several years ago, someone I was very fond of, someone whose wife I also know, had killed himself in the D.C. suburbs. He leaves behind his wife and a two year old daughter.

Yesterday, I found an obituary for Kalena Medeiros. I sent a message to our Chancellor—a good man—that read, “it’s not a secret,” and he simply thanked me.

This is my third essay on this subject for The Independent. I know that concerned parents and students find my arguments—Mother #1’s son knows someone who’s writing a response to one of them for a class—but our administration still withholds information crucial to our well-being. The time has come for them to hear from more of you: parents, students and concerned citizens.

Susan M. Schultz
Professor of English
[email protected]