Student death: how App State communicates after tragic events
April 18, 2019
Editor’s note: This article explains App State’s protocol for releasing information about student deaths. However, the article discusses mental health and suicide, which may trigger some students. If you or someone you know is struggling, reach out to the Counseling Center at 828-262-3180 or call the National Suicide Hotline at 1-800-273-8255
The 2019 spring semester has not been without the loss of life on App State’s campus. Three students have died.
In the 2014-15 academic year, App State sent out campus-wide emails if a student died. That year, nine students died. In 2013-14, seven. The year before that, eight.
“We just did what we had done before,” Chief Communications Officer Megan Hayes said. “And what that year taught us is that we can’t afford to do that.”
Hayes said the App State communications after a student death are intentional and the university needs to understand the implications of those communications.
During the 2014-15 academic year, App State started to review the policy for when a student dies. That summer, App State created the Student Death Protocol.
The Old Way Isn’t Always Best
“We got a ton of calls from people saying, ‘Why are you sending me this information?’” Assistant Dean of Students Alan Rasmussen said. “‘You just made my day horrible’ or ‘This just reminded me of my cousin who passed away.’”
The Dean of Students office received similar calls after campus-wide notifications of a student’s death were sent to students. Rasmussen said students walked into the office crying even if they didn’t have a relationship with the student; they still felt the impact.
The decision to stop sending campus-wide notifications was based on student safety and how App State wanted to remember its students. Another intentional decision Hayes said they made is not stating the cause of death.
“We made a choice to define students by what they contributed in their lives, and that’s how we’re going to talk about the students,” Hayes said. “That was a really important choice for us to make, and we all felt very, very strongly about that when we were developing that protocol.”
Hayes said the only person who can determine the cause of an unattended death in North Carolina is the medical examiner.
Hayes said that if anybody is in potential danger on campus, they will be alerted immediately.
“Sometimes it might have typos in it because that’s how fast they’re getting it out,” Hayes said. “They care about letting people know immediately.”
When a student dies, the way App State communicates is intentional for safety reasons.
“If a person gets a message about someone that they didn’t know, that can tap into some of that person’s own fears or concerns or own background and life experiences,” Director of the Counseling Center Christopher Hogan said.
Those communications, and media coverage, can lead to an unintentional effect called suicide contagion.
“Suicide contagion, in a nutshell, is when we have a high-profile death by suicide and it’s reported in the media in a glorifying way or a dramatic kind of sensationalized way,” Coordinator for Student Mental Wellness Elisabeth Cavallaro said. “It can then lead to more suicides in that community.”
Cavallaro was part of the team that created the Student Death Protocol. She stressed that suicide contagion affects people with suicidal ideation.
“The memorializing death can be very scary and create a safety risk for those that are actively engaging in suicidal ideation or at risk for suicide themselves,” Rasmussen said. “Any type of death, the memorialization broadcasted can lead to a completion. And that’s the scariest part. That’s what we mean by safety.”
Instead of sending out a campus-wide notification, the university now sends a notification to people who Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs J.J. Brown calls the “ripple effect.”
Those connections could include siblings, roommates, clubs and organizations the student was involved in, and students in their majors.
“That’s a phrase that Megan (Hayes), and other folks, have heard me say for a long time. So what I mean by ripple effect is, what are those connections?
“We pull in the department chair of which they were majoring in because a lot of times, there’s connections, as well and again thinking about the department where that student may know individuals and the faculty in that department.”
The student’s connections are compiled in a Student Postvention Response Team meeting, convened by the Dean of Students Office.
The Student Death Protocol
The 16-page protocol outlines who to contact when a student dies and what to do in the postvention meeting.
When a student dies on campus, App State Police secures the location and begins the investigation. It also notifies the Counseling and Psychological Services Center or the on-call counselor.
“We get notified usually as soon as possible just because…we are often involved in a response,” Hogan said.
Hogan said staff from the Counseling Center go to the residence hall if the death happened there, and are present when students are informed.
App State Police also notifies the university chief of police, the State Bureau of Investigation and the Dean of Students on-call staff person.
The Dean of Students then contacts eight primary contacts “as soon as possible” and nine secondary contacts “as soon as practical” across campus. The Student Postvention Response Team convenes as soon as possible after the Dean of Students Office is notified.
“As soon as we can in a reasonable amount of time, that’s where we discuss—as a team—the response,” Cavallaro said.
During the postvention meeting, Hayes said she thinks of how she can support those who provide direct services to families.
“I go into those meetings thinking, ‘How can I help them do what has got to be the hardest thing in the world to have to do?’” Hayes said.
A Dean of Students Office staff member typically notifies and works with the family.
Brown, former Dean of Students, worked with families whose child died while they were an App State student.
“It’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever navigated, working with families and thinking about the loss of a parent, by far,” Brown said.
Brown said helping parents process their loss is rewarding.
“I’ve worked with J.J. (Brown) for a long time, and I just have an incredible amount of respect for the people who provide these direct services to families,” Hayes said. “It’s not a job I could do. It’s a job that I want to support.”
For Brown, thinking about his children gave him the passion to help and work with the families.
“I think about if I were the one receiving that phone call and what is that like and what does that mean,” Brown said. “I think that’s what drives our compassion and our attempt to be compassionate and caring for wherever they are.”
Once the postvention team maps out connection points, notifications, which detail on-campus resources are sent to those groups. If it is an on-campus death, the Counseling Center, Dean of Students Office and University Housing meet with residents of the residence hall.
Once those meetings take place, a care team sets up a grieving room in the Plemmons Student Union.
“There is a grieving room that’s available for students where they can go if they don’t want to meet with a counselor in the Counseling Center,” Cavallaro said.
The grieving room is a space for faculty, staff, students and members of the deceased’s family to gather and grieve.
The room is also staffed with at least one counselor from the Counseling Center.
“It’s a space to have counselors available that’s outside of the Counseling Center,” Hogan said. “For some students, it might be that they just need a little bit of space.”
Hogan said counselors don’t necessarily engage with those in the room, but they can share information about the grieving process and resources.
The grieving room is closed to all media.
After a student death, the dean of students places a memorial book outside its office.
“Any students, staff, faculty can sign it,” Dean of Students Jonathon Hyde said. “It’s intentional that it’s out in front of our office because if somebody seems really impacted, they can come right in and get support and meet with one of our case managers.”
The dean of students office offers the book is then offered as a gift to the the parents of the student.
The university invites family members of a student who has died to the annual Student Memorial Program. The student’s name, if the parents wish, and a statement from the parents are read at the memorial.
“It becomes a pretty powerful weekend too, for those families that, unfortunately have been coming for many years, get to meet a newer family and make a connection that is very powerful and very hard to imagine,” Rasmussen said.
On the first floor of the B.B. Dougherty Administration Building, a memorial plaque lists the names of students who have died. Parents give permission for their child’s name to be included.
“People, I think, walk by it and don’t notice it, but gosh, that day it really becomes the center of the administration building, and it’s very visually powerful,” Hyde said.
The memorial program is typically in September or early October, but the memorial plaque remains in the building all year.
While no response to a death is the same, the protocol allows for consistency when the campus needs it.
“I think that is one of the most important things. So, no matter the circumstance, we respond by doing the same things every time, no matter what,” Brown said.
Cavallaro said a consistent protocol also helps keep people out of “panic mode.”
“When people are in crisis mode, their brain is going to be working a little bit differently,” Cavallaro said. “So, that’s why you want to have that plan in place when you are able to think rationally.”
Often, the relationship between the student’s family and the university goes beyond the notification.
“There’s the short-term component and then we often stay connected for a very long time depending on what their needs are,” Rasmussen said.
The Dean of Students Office supports the family if they return to Boone.
“We want to make sure that they know they’re always welcome on campus, and if they ever need us for anything, we’re here,” Rasmussen said.
Students Affected By Death
By the time Mary Carver Deal graduated high school, four of her friends had died by suicide.
“When I was a sophomore in high school, one of my really close guy friends committed suicide, and then by the time I graduated high school, a total of four of my friends committed suicide,” Deal said.
Deal, sophomore art and visual culture major, said she became the person people could talk to if they were feeling depressed or sad.
She started an art show fundraiser that raised money for different memorials and said she spent most of high school raising awareness for mental health.
When she got to App State, Deal said her mental health declined.
“When I got to college I kind of flipped my perspective, I guess because I went from being the person you talked to about depression to being one of the most depressed people you could talk to,” Deal said.
During that time, Deal said she couldn’t go to classes.
“All these things were just happening at one time, and I remember sitting there and telling my mom like, ‘Mom I didn’t understand what all of them went through until right now,’” Deal said.
Deal said she was sitting in her room one day when she realized that her mom, her brother, the Counseling Center and the Dean of Students were all trying to help her.
She realized she had to help herself get out of that mindset.
Deal said she started keeping herself busy by rushing a sorority and participating in community service.
“I’d volunteer for Operation Christmas Child, the Hunger and Health Coalition…just to kind of keep myself busy and try to do something positive,” Deal said. “My thought was, ‘If I do something positive, then I’ll feel better.’”
She also said she made herself wake up earlier and started hanging out with people instead of keeping to herself.
“Eventually, I got to the point where me pretending to be happy every day was me actually being happy,” Deal said.
She started to get more involved in mental health wellness during the 2019 spring semester by helping organize an art auction for the Bridge of Hope Banquet.
Junior Brandon Southard started the Whitaker Fund, with the Counseling Center and the Office of Financial Aid, for students who can’t afford off-campus counseling services.
The fund started after Southard talked with Hogan about what students need. When Hogan shared statistics with Southard about how many students come through the Counseling Center, it stuck with him.
Southard, religious studies major, said it hurt him that so many people struggled with mental health.
In the 2017-18 academic year, 2,565 students visited the Counseling Center.
The name of the fund has special meaning to Southard.
“Part of my story is that my mom committed suicide when I was a freshman in high school,” Southard said. “That sucked and hurt, but I wanted to be able to make a positive out of that.”
Southard wanted to honor his mom some way, and when trying to find a name for the fund, he talked to Hogan.
“My mom, when she was a Whitaker—her maiden name—that was when she seemed the happiest in her life,” Southard said. “It’s specific to a time in her life when she was happy.”
Last year his fraternity,, raised $1,400 for the fund in the Bridge of Hope Banquet. In 2019, the fundraiser took place on April 13 and the money was raised by auctioning student artwork, which Deal helped organize.
On March 30, students and community members participated in the fifth Out of Darkness: Suicide Prevention Walk on App State’s campus.
Frank Batts, sophomore biology major, said the walk means a lot to him because his brother died by suicide when he was in high school.
Batts worked with Cavallaro to organize the March 30 walk. His sister-in-law organizes the same walk in Surf City where he is from.
The walk raises money for the American Society for Suicide Prevention, which “raises awareness, funds scientific research and provides resources and aid to those affected by suicide,” according to its website.
Before the walk, participants met and had a small ceremony.
“There’s a bead ceremony where you wear the color of the bead of the situation you’re in,” Batts said.
The different colors represent:
- Orange – Lost a Sibling.
- Purple – Lost a Relative or Friend.
- Silver – Lost First Responder / Military.
- Green – Struggled Personally.
- Blue – Support the Cause.
- Teal – Friends and Family of Someone Who Struggles.
The walked raised $2,348 in 2019.
Southard is part of the App State Police cadet program and will participate in the police academy in summer 2019.
“I just want to help people and I think that the drive to help people wouldn’t be where it is today,” Southard said. “It really grew from my own loss because no one should have to struggle with that and no one should ever feel like that is their solution. It’s impacted me greatly, and it’s really made me who I am.”
Southard also said he became more involved with his church and started playing guitar for his church band after his mom died.
“When I was really in that low place, I would start playing the guitar,” Southard said. “I turned it into some creative energy if I was just sitting there kind of down on myself and really feeling sad.”
After her friends died in high school, Deal helped raise awareness for suicide prevention.
When her mental health was declining when she started college, she had this advice for anyone who has a friend going through a mental health crisis.
“Actions speak louder than words,” Deal said. “Ask them to hang out. The best thing that got me through it was just leaving my house trying to go out and do things.”
Batts also said getting out of his house helped him after his brother died.
“Reach out to friends, because the worst part about it is being alone,” Batts said. “That’s when the thoughts really get into your head.”
Providing resources to affected students as soon as possible is part of the Student Death Protocol, but sometimes a student doesn’t need those resources right away.
“It’s really not uncommon for, months later, a student to come in for our initial consultations and say, ‘Yeah, two months ago this person died in my residence hall,’ and they kind of talk about how it’s impacted them,” Hogan said.
Students can go to the Counseling Center for a 20-25 minute initial consultation with a counselor. Afterward, the counselor can share resources with the student that would best suit their needs.
“We’ve tried to have it so that 90% of the students who come in are able to see a counselor at the time that they come in,” Hogan said.
Hogan said the initial consultation service can help students identify resources quickly instead of waiting weeks to schedule an appointment.
The Counseling Center also implemented single session therapy for students.
“For some students, if they just had one session where they can work intently on one issue, that might meet their needs,” Hogan said.
If a student needs help when the Counseling Center is closed, they can call 828-262-3180 and choose to speak with an on-call counselor.
The Wellness and Prevention Services mission is to promote healthy behaviors, offer risk behavior modification services and advocate for campus-wide health policies, according to its website.
“The amount of work that’s put into prevention on this campus is just immense,” Hayes said. “(Wellness and Prevention services) understand how to lay this groundwork of support.”
Cavallaro helps coordinate mental health awareness events, teaches a Koru Mindfulness class and works directly with students to connect them with resources.
“I would say my favorite part of my job is working with students in all different capacities,” Cavallaro said.
Wellness and Prevention Services also offers online suicide prevention training which teaches:
- Warning signs for suicide
- How to identify someone who needs help
- What to say to someone who is in need of help
- How to refer someone who is experiencing suicidal thoughts to professional mental health resources
The training can be accessed on preventsuicide.appstate.edu and more information about Wellness and Prevention Services can be found on its website, wellness.appstate.edu.
The Office of the Dean of Students is a primary contact for students, parents and faculty.
“We try to make sure that parents, faculty, staff and other students know that we’re just kind of a first place to go if you don’t know how to solve a problem and you don’t know exactly what you might need,” Hyde said.
Hyde said the Office of the Dean of Students has connections across campus, which allows the office help students find resources they may not know about.
Another aspect of the dean of students office is the case managers.
Hyde said the case managers work with students to help them strategize for success and help them find resources across campus.
Rasmussen, who is a case manager, said he works with students who are navigating challenges and helps them find resources.
“We just try to open up doors to make the system all the easier,” Rasmussen said.
Hayes said other institutions called her, saying they were in similar positions as App State was in the 2014-15 academic year. They would ask how App State got to where it is now and what advice it could give them.
In 2015-16, Hayes said Chancellor Sheri Everts got an email from a former student working at a university in Hawaii. She told the chancellor her university was looking at the Student Death Protocol as a model for how to communicate in the future.
Brown said people in Student Affairs have shared the protocol with other campuses.
Brown said he knows what it’s like to lose someone close while in college. He said his dad became terminally ill when Brown went to college and those who helped him motivate him now.
“I almost quit school when my dad got sick and I didn’t, and it’s because people at the institution, my academic adviser, folks in student affairs that kept me in school and helped me navigate kind of a challenging time,” Brown said.
Brown said another one of his biggest motivations is helping students through challenges so they can graduate and “live out those dreams.”
For Rasmussen, said he hopes the intentionality of the protocol is a better approach than it was in the past.
“My hope is that the policy is providing resources and support to those that really need help during a very tragic and difficult time, but in the safest way possible in that regard,” Rasmussen said.