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Why UH Manoa needs a student death protocol

A small group of students and faculty at the University of Hawaii at Manoa has been trying to get the administration to create a humane protocol for handling tragedy on campus, and to better advertise mental health services, for nearly a year.

Susan Schultz

Last September, I walked into a class and set up a writing exercise, intended to last most of the class period. One of my students, let’s call him Philippe, appeared agitated and asked to speak to me outside the room. As soon as we got into the concrete corridor, he told me that a friend of his had been killed in a car accident that weekend in Texas. Then he said that he’d been sitting outside his dorm the day before when someone landed near him, someone who had fallen from a great height. “His name was Abel. Abel,” he said. I told him to get his things, and we walked to the Counseling Center together. As it turned out, he didn’t get an appointment until four days later because he neglected to say that he was very immediately traumatized.

After leaving him at the Counseling Center, I returned to class. Everyone was busily writing, so I opened a novel I’d brought to pass the time. I have no memory of what book it was, but when I opened to the first page, I was stunned to read the name of the protagonist. It was Abel. Since that day, I have tried to get my university to create a protocol for dealing with student and faculty deaths, and for better advertising their mental health services. This quest, in which I’m joined by a small group of like-minded faculty and students, has led me into a Kakfa-esque world of university administration.

In brief: I and several graduate students from around campus had a meeting with the Dean of Students and the head of university housing last October. The head of the counseling center, with whom I’d spoken on the phone a couple of days after Abel’s death, was a no-show. I never heard from her. We presented a package of materials that included models for dealing with deaths, whether by suicide or not. (Whether or not Abel committed suicide is an open question. But his death should have been honored with communication from UH Manoa to the community.)

The reasons for not announcing Abel’s death or creating a memorial service for him (or anything) were the following:

—Because there is no campus police force, the Honolulu PD takes over in cases like this one, and they don’t communicate back with the UH Manoa;

—They didn’t announce the death because he might not have died, and that would be terribly embarrassing to the institution;

—While every stolen moped is reported to the entire community, deaths are not, because there’s a rule that thefts must be reported. There’s no rule about deaths.

—And besides, cultural issues are very complicated in Hawaii.


—UHM needs a police force (this made my stomach fall); and

—Nothing can be done. Though they would think about it.

At the beginning of this calendar year, I asked for a follow-up appointment and heard nothing back. I sent at least three emails that were not answered. There was administrative “churn” going on, as the Dean had become interim Vice Chancellor and the head of housing had become the Dean. There were dorms to move into and—later in the semester—to move out of. There is a lot to do. But I persisted, and finally received an email with a Doodle form so that members of my group and members of the new Dean’s group could schedule a meeting. We filled it out and then nothing happened. When I appeared to accept a teaching award, I ran into the VC, who assured me we would meet again, soon. The semester ended. I got a brief note of apology. Busy time of year. Will be back in touch. Then it was summer.

This past weekend, two young men fell from one of the UH Manoa dorms. One of the men was apparently trying to stop the other from committing suicide. The man who reached out to save the other is dead, and the potential suicide is in critical condition in the hospital. It’s a great story. It’s a Biblical parable. Even the Good Samaritan did not die for his act of concern for a fellow human being. When President Obama or the Pope talk about “grace” as an accidental thing, they might be talking about this young man who, without thinking about his own safety, died thinking about someone else’s.

The story broke on the day it happened. It broke on local television and in the newspaper. The head of UH Manoa communications sent out an email to a rather random lot of deans—an email that someone sent to me—that alerted them about media presence on campus following this event. The subject line of the email was MEDIA. That message got passed around a bit and ended up with the interim VC of students, the former Dean, who wrote a message about how wonderful the counseling center is and how people are encouraged to use it. Her email still bore the header MEDIA at the top, though it was now about crisis response to a tragedy on campus.

That was Sunday. On Monday, the campus email list remained quiet. There was no notification of an event on campus, no note of horror, no advice to seek counseling if you needed it. Nothing. I wrote to the VC and the Dean. I copied that email to the Chancellor. He wrote back to say he was consulting with “communications folks” and that he “may” say something. The Dean wrote back that students in the nearly empty dorms were being offered counseling and that he would be in touch to talk about the larger issues later. Later in the day, as I sat in my office, the Chair and Associate Chair of my department came by with the new Associate Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs. She was taking notes on broken air conditioners (such as my own) as she toured my decrepit building. I said that, on this day,  I was more angry about the tragedy on campus that the UH Manoa administration had said nothing about. The three of them stared at me. They had no idea. I advised them to watch the news.

On Tuesday, we received emails from UH Manoa. They read: “The State Department of Transportation is closing the H-1 Freeway eastbound University Avenue off-ramp on Wednesday, August 19, and Thursday, August 20, from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. for repair work.” In the meantime, the story has spread like wildfire: it’s been in USA Today and on the front page of Yahoo. As the story spreads, the notes of condolence and horror grow louder from UH Manoa’s communications director. But perhaps more to the point, the article includes this sentence: “On Monday afternoon, there were mostly maintenance workers and cleaning staff outside the dorm getting ready for students to move in.”

I have recorded most of my communications with administration—if they can be called communications—on my Facebook page. A friend offered up two immediate suggestions.

First, UHM should put this in their rules:

3.52 Internal Communications before External Communications

Employees and students of UH Manoa have the right to know how a situation or development might affect them before the external public. UH Manoa will inform employees and students first before a story or development is made public. Sometimes information is simultaneously released internally and externally if timing is particularly critical.

Then, when a tragedy happens—and they do—they should respond this way (he said it took him five minutes to write):

I am writing with terribly sad news that we received notice from the Honolulu Police Department (HPD) that, around 2:00 a.m. this morning, a man died after falling from a dormitory while trying to save another man who was considering suicide. The other man also fell and is currently in critical condition. HPD is investigating the incident. The two men were not UH students. We are currently reaching out directly to support those students most affected by this devastating loss. The University staff is also making every effort to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragic incident.

As a community, we all mourn this loss and extend our thoughts and prayers to those affected during this difficult time. A variety of resources are available to members of the university community affected by this incident. The University Counseling Center can be reached at 808-XXX-XXXX.

It’s been nearly a year since Abel Pelligrino died. I think about him a lot. He was from Saipan, far from home, and he was a sweet young man. I know that because I know the woman who taught him Freshman Composition and the graduate student who worked with her. They were shattered by the news, when they got it. I’ve talked at length to the young woman who was closest to him when he died. She spent a semester writing an article about his death. You can read it here.

In the parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10), a man asks Jesus: “who is my neighbor?” To be a neighbor is to be adjacent to someone else, to live next to them. It’s a spatial term. “We’re neighbors!” my little girl called out from an adjoining stall in a women’s room once, and someone else laughed. There was a wall between us, but we could hear each other. Frost’s neighbors kept a wall between them, in part so they could meet to mend it. Having neighbors often involves ignoring annoyances, or lending someone a kitchen item (though when last that happened I can’t remember). Or it involves intervening in their lives without telling them, even though sometimes they find out when they get the call from Social Services or from their daughter’s school.

But I don’t think that’s the kind of neighbor Jesus is getting at in this parable. That kind of neighbor too often requires thought, or a blanking out of thought. At times it requires strategy. The Good Samaritan is one who does not think. Rather, he sees and he acts. He cuts through the barriers that divided Samaritans from Jews. His actions aren’t momentary, like handing the suffering man a burger, or saying a kind hello. Instead, he houses the man, gives him money to go on his way the next day. That kind of neighbor does not admit barriers or borders. As Thomas Gumbleton writes: “Yet Jesus says, ‘That’s the one.’ The Samaritan reaches out, so who’s really the neighbor: the one who removes the barriers, who sees the one who is in need? Someone he must respond to, not asking questions about his worthiness, questions about his race, questions about his religion. Here’s a fellow human being in need. Have compassion; reach out in love at this moment now.”

The 24-year old man who died trying to save the suicidal 19-year old the other day reached out. He ought not to have done so. He should have stayed inside the dorm and talked the teenager back inside, if he could. If not, he should have let the guy jump. That’s the sensible and non-self-destructive view of the situation, at least as it’s being painted in the press. (Who really knows where the story comes from?) He failed to think. Failing to think is a problem. It’s also an element of all the virtues I can think of, from generosity to kindness to what spiritual traditions refer to as love. Failing to think is also failing to fear.

No university administrator can claim to be without fear. Administrators fear law suits, mostly, and so they do a lot of ass-covering, which usually results in a lot of not-doing-anything. Their high salaries seem predicated on blocking things from ever occurring, as much as getting anything done. (And UHM salaries for high administrators are due to be raised soon, the newspaper tells us just this morning.) In this Kafka-esque realm, the act of reaching out to someone in need gets so complicated that simply expressing condolences becomes not an act of compassion but an instrumental use of language to deflect blame.

To find compassionate administrative language about death, one need only look as far as our sister school, UH-Hilo. The document begins this way: “The death of a student can be deeply emotional and stressful for students faculty, staff, and the family of the student. It is the aim of the University of Hawaii at Hilo to respond appropriately and sensitively in the event of the death of a currently enrolled students. To that end, the following protocol has been developed to ensure a caring, professional, coordinated, and consistent response by the University administration.” The language is economical, direct, and expresses compassion, even as the rest of the document fills in practical, nitty gritty details. For the full UH-Hilo protocol, all six pages of it, click here.

Here’s a beautiful letter from William & Mary, which went out to the entire community, and can serve as an example of good communication. (It’s a very sad story.) It was sent to me by one of their administrators, who also sent me links to their media guidelines and suicide prevention page.

Dear William & Mary Community,

There is no message worse than the one I share with you today. With profound sadness, I am writing to tell you of the death of one of our students, Paul, a sophomore from Arlington, Va., who took his own life in the early morning hours today. The WMPD responded immediately after receiving a 911 call from one of his friends.

In 2013 Paul graduated first in his class from Washington‐Lee High School in Arlington, VA. A talented student, he had yet to declare a major at W&M. Paul was also a passionate performer. In January he played one of the swashbucklers in Sinfonicron Light Opera Company’s The Pirates of Penzance, and he was to have performed this month in the premiere of a new W&M student‐written, faculty‐directed play. Many on campus have delighted in Paul’s talent and wit, enjoying especially his comedic flair as a member of the university’s Improvisational Theater (I.T.).

Since learning this tragic news, members of the student affairs staff and W&M Police have been on campus offering direct assistance to those who were closest to Paul. The Dean of Students Office, the Counseling Center, Residence Life staff, campus ministers, and my office are available on a priority basis for those who need us. As always, counselors are on call on a 24‐hour basis and can be reached after office hours by calling the campus dispatcher at 221‐4596. Please see additional information and resources below. I will send a follow‐up message in the coming days once we have information from Paul’s family about funeral and/or memorial arrangements.

At times like this we naturally ask ourselves, “Why did this happen?” We may never know the answer to that. In the face of such a terrible loss, it is important that we all take the time to reach out to each other, listen to each other, and offer strength and comfort where we can. Paul’s death reminds us of how close we are to one another at William & Mary. What affects one of us affects us all. I know you join me in extending our deepest sympathies to the S family and to Paul’s many friends.


Ginger Ambler

Below her letter to the community is a checklist of warning signs for suicide and the resources available to the community, as well as advice on how to respond (and not to respond) to a friend or family member who is suicidal. I don’t see how such a communication would get anyone in trouble. What it would do is inform the community and allow it to begin a process of healing. If families don’t want suicide mentioned, then don’t mention it. But there was a still a death, and still grief to be worked through, and witnesses and friends to deal with trauma.

My latest communication from the Chancellor is not something I will post here. But I will quote my response to him:

Dear Robert—thank you for responding to my emails. I appreciate that. And believe me, I understand the problem of academic politics.

But I wrote to you because you’re the Chancellor. You’re at the top of the administrative mountain. What you say and do provides a model for what those under you do and say. And you don’t need even to specify name or cause of death. There doesn’t even need to be a protocol yet.

That said, I love the introduction to UH-Hilo’s “Protocol for Responding to a Student Death.” Allow me to quote it:

“The death of a student can be deeply emotional and stressful for students, faculty, staff, and the family of the student. It is the aim of the University of Hawaii at Hilo to respond appropriately and sensitively in the event of the death of a currently enrolled student. To that end, the following protocol has been developed to ensure a caring, professional, coordinated, and consistent response by the University administration.”

The man who died reached out to someone who was suffering. At that moment, he didn’t care about his own life. He lost that life. Let his courage be a model for ours.

Aloha, Susan

Susan Schultz is a professor of English at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and author of the Tinfish Editor’s Blog, where this was originally published. She has started a petition asking the administration to create a humane campus death protocol. You can find it here.