Training for Tragedy
Whether by homicide or suicide, the impact of a student’s death on fellow classmates can be devastation, shock and dismay. For many young college students, it is often their first experience with death.
When a student dies on campus, who makes the call to the family? What types of support services are available to classmates?
Tara Baker was a 23-year-old first-year law student at the University of Georgia-Athens when she was found murdered in an off-campus home that she shared with two roommates (see related story, pg 23). Investigators believe the student’s killer set fire to Baker’s home to cover up the slaying.
Even though the crime happened off campus, a series of events played out that involved local authorities and campus officials.
Rick Rose, assistant vice president for student affairs at UGA, says typically the police or hospital officials notify the family in the event of a death.
Counselors were on hand at UGA when Baker died to help her classmates cope with the death. The university has two campus counseling centers and a mental health clinic. There are psychiatrists and grief counselors available to the university community.
“Our job [in student affairs] is to deal with administrative issues, such as stopping [academic] records,” Rose told Black Issues. “I will usually represent the university at the funeral or any type of visitation with the family to let them know we are grieving with them.” In such situations, Rose says his job also is to answer any questions the family might have as well as to help the family clean out the student’s residence if they request assistance.
Working in the field of student affairs for 11 years, Rose recalls once having to break the news to a student that her husband had died. Though the incident occurred prior to Rose’s arrival at UGA, he still remembers it. “I don’t want to have to do that again,” he says.”
Eighty percent of UGA students live off campus, according to Rose, still the perception is that they belong more to the university community than to the surrounding local community, he says.
UGA has a Crisis Response Team, which includes representatives from campus police, university communications, the health center, counseling center, county police, vice president for student affairs and university relations. When crises occur, the group meets to decide what role each unit should play to manage the situation, Rose says. There also is a phone tree that is followed when a crisis occurs. Residence staff are given crisis-response training, such as who to call in the event of a student death. In recent years, UGA residence staff have had to deal with a suicide in the dorm as well as a student that had collapsed and died in one of the dorms.
“We are fortunate. All of the entities work so well together,” Rose says. “If you have to be in a crisis, this is a good place to be.”
Candy R. Wei, a 20-year-old University of Michigan-Ann Arbor student, died in her dormitory room on Jan. 16. Preliminary findings from the medical examiner conclude that she committed suicide.
William Zeller, director of university housing, notes that all residence staff on his campus receive training in crisis intervention, which instructs them on what to do if a medical emergency occurs in a residence hall.
“We always hope that it is a part of their training they never have to employ, but regretfully, as was the case…they need to be prepared to respond swiftly and appropriately to emergency situations.”
The university made counseling services available to all students through its counseling and psychological services division. Counseling for faculty and staff was provided through the university’s faculty and staff assistance program.
Julie Peterson, a spokeswoman for the University of Michigan, told Black Issues that its student affairs office is primarily responsible for handling these types of crises. The office designates one person to be in contact with the family so that the family is not dealing with several people and departments regarding academic records, tuition bills, etc.
“We have an absolutely marvelous student affairs office,” Peterson says. “They really mobilize and work very well together. We have a smooth process for this type of incident. It’s important that we do it well.”
— Hilary Hurd
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