The Appalachian Online
February 26, 2015
report comes over the radio that a possible unattended death has occurred on campus. University Police’s General Patrol responds, racing to the scene, likely arriving second only to the emergency responders. If a deceased individual is found, the scene goes into immediate lockdown. An officer is posted to stand guard over the scene, logging and recording everyone who goes in and out. Another is helping canvass the area.
Anytime a death occurs at Appalachian State University, Investigations is called. Led by Investigations Commander Capt. Todd Corley, the team of four detectives handles open-ended cases such as larcenies, breaking-and-enterings, assaults and deaths. Once at the scene, they begin to canvass and collect evidence.
“Of course, everything is always different, no two things are the same,” Corley said. “But we’re very methodical and we work these crime scenes based on our training and experience.”
University Police officers respond to an intoxicated person on an AppalCart bus in 2012. Photo by Olivia Wilkes
During the initial response, which takes place over the first four to six hours, the team is photographing, collecting evidence, dusting for prints, doing carpet tapings for fibers and more depending on the situation. Meanwhile, other University Police officers and detectives help with the canvassing, asking students if they knew the individual, asking how the individual had been, if they’ve noticed anything unusual and other questions of the like.
In the event of a death, a medical examiner, or M.E. is the only one who can approve removing the body from the scene and the only one who can determine cause of death by state law.
Once the M.E. is involved, Investigations has no say in what is written on the examiner’s report, but they are the ones who give him or her the information from the scene. Corley phones the M.E. two or three times throughout the process. He relays in vivid detail everything that he sees. Whether it’s something related to the body or the scene of the incident in general, he gives as much information as possible so the examiner can make a preliminary diagnosis and approve the removal.
The body is then transported to the M.E.’s lab for further and more complete testing so that they can determine an official cause of death. If they’re dealing with alcohol or a drug overdose, sometimes there isn’t apparent evidence at the scene and it’s the toxicology report from the M.E.’s lab that makes the conclusion, a process that can take months unless there’s reason to believe public safety is at risk.
Once the identity of the deceased is determined, Dean of Students J.J. Brown is first at Appalachian to be contacted outside of law enforcement so that the family may be informed. University Police helps with this process as needed, even after the case is considered closed.
“We continue to talk to the family,” Corley said. “If they want to meet with the investigator, we’ll meet whenever they want to meet and we go over however much they want to know. We’re glad to share it with them.”
If it looks wrong, it probably is wrong. If you feel like a situation is bad, try and put distance between you and whatever is happening and please call us.”
Many Appalachian students have felt anxious or fearful about the deaths of nine currently enrolled students this year. Seven occurred off-campus and two occurred on-campus. Two of the deaths have been confirmed as suicide, while three were “the result of unrelated motor vehicle accidents,” according to an email sent out by Chancellor Sheri N. Everts, Interim Provost and Executive Vice Chancellor Stan Aeschleman, and Brown. The email stated that the cause of death for the other four have not been provided to the university, but the medical examiner reported to the Charlotte Observer that two of the four were suicide while a third was a drug overdose.
Student deaths are always difficult for a university, and while the number seems high this academic year, Appalachian has faced this before. Since spring 2012, there have been 28 student deaths total and only two semesters without a recorded death. Summer 2012 to spring 2013 saw 12 deaths. Summer 2014 to spring 2015 has seen 13 deaths. The remaining three happened during fall 2013 and spring 2014, according to information provided by the Dean of Students’ office.
Suicide is the third leading cause of death for persons 15 to 24 years old, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Unintentional injury, which includes motor vehicle accidents, is number one while homicide is number two.
University Police is advocating students be more aware and take more precautionary steps that can help keep them safe from day to day. Officer Amber Stanley Swift’s advice is not to be naïve and think Boone is automatically safe because it’s a small town.
“Be aware that anything can happen, anywhere,” Stanley Swift said.
She suggests that students take the Rape Aggression Defense, or RAD, course that they offer. The course teaches male and female students defense techniques and self-defense tactics against “various types of assault.”
Officers stand by a roadblock on the intersection of South Water Street and Rivers Street near the wooded area where an unidentified body was found early in the morning Sept 13. The body was later confirmed to be that of Appalachian State University student Anna Smith, who was reported missing on Sept. 4.
Photo by Chris Deverell
Capt. Johnny Brown believes these courses are important to student safety, but does fear they may not be reaching those who need the training most.
“The only bad thing about some of the programs is that our target audience isn’t always who we want sometimes,” Brown said. “Most of the ones that show up aren’t the ones that we’re trying to reach out to.”
Other than being aware of surroundings, students can be safer by avoiding wearing headphones when walking or play music at a low volume so that they can hear cars honk or someone sneaking up on them.
Communication is also key to student safety. Letting friends know with a simple text or call that they are leaving somewhere or walking back home late at night, or letting someone know that they’ve seen something suspicious and its location can be imperative in case something does happen.
But at the end of the day, the best advice is to go with gut feeling.
“If it looks wrong, it probably is wrong,” Brown said. “If you feel like a situation is bad, try and put distance between you and whatever is happening and please call us.”
University Police’s mission is to keep students and the community at Appalachian safe. They not only enforce the law, but they also uphold university policies.
But many students don’t know what exactly they do on a daily basis, and so the police department has tried to be more available to the community and combat any misunderstandings. New this year is “Coffee with Cops,” an event in Plemmons Student Union that allows anyone to approach the officers and talk or ask questions in a relaxed environment. The next one is scheduled for March 4.
“We try to do [events in the community] in an attempt to get closer to the kids on campus and let them know that we’re here and we’re people and they can see us in a different light,” Stanley Swift said. “I feel like when you can see cops in a different light, it makes it easier because people have a certain perception of us.”
Brown said he thinks it takes a different kind of person to be a University Police officer as opposed to highway patrol or town or city police.
“We try to do more for the students than you would ever get out of another police department,” Brown said. “We do reports on things that really aren’t reportable because we’re asking parents to send [Appalachian] their kids and we want to make sure that this place is safe and it takes a lot to do that.”
And despite the raised level of media attention and the high number of student deaths, some students still believe University Police is doing a good job protecting them.
Anna Alexander, a senior education major, said she has always felt they do a good job on campus.
“Their presence is always known,” Alexander said. “And that does make me feel safer.”
Both Alexander and Emory Haynes, a senior education major as well, are members of the Kappa Delta sorority and said they’ve seen officers helping students in a variety of ways, not just the typical situations. Whether it's picking up students and giving them rides at night and giving them rides to the hospital after Health Services closes, or at home sporting events in a security capacity, they can be seen playing many roles.
Senior management major Paul Heckert believes they are doing what’s best for the community and keeping an eye on students.
“The ASUPD are there to look out for you when you’re doing stupid college student stuff,” Heckert said, “as long as you’re not being too stupid.”
The heightened level of attention that national media outlets have given Appalachian has caused students to worry and stress, and both University Police and the university are making efforts to help students during these times. More staff for the Counseling Center has been hired to help with grief or any other concerns students might have, The Appalachian reported. Students are encouraged to watch for warning signs in others, suggest resources to friends and informing their Residence Assistant or a faculty or staff member if they have concerns.
“Finally, take time to listen,” Everts wrote in an email to students. “Sometimes the simplest acts are the most powerful.”
University Police will continue patrolling, watching out for the students’ safety and being as methodical as ever in their investigations. They will also be out in the public more as they try to be available to answer student’s questions or concerns and to raise awareness for safety issues.
They want to be seen and used as a resource.
“We really want people to know we’re here in a different light and not just out there to be writing citations and taking the normal calls,” Stanley Swift said. “There’s stuff going on in our community and we want to help.”
Student deaths by semester
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