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Student death policy cuts down on notifications, emphasizes the survivors

The Appalachian Online

Notifications concerning student deaths were a frequent sight in the inboxes of students last year, but that is set to change with a new student death protocol that changes the way student deaths are reported and handled.

The new policy will resemble accepted procedures used in years past. Wherever a death occurs, law enforcement is expected to be the first group on the scene. Law enforcement will be responsible for notifying families, summoning medical personnel and starting an investigation.

Within the university itself, J.J. Brown, the dean of students, will be responsible for notifying other officials within the university hierarchy about a student death.

What has changed is the way news of a death will be communicated to the university. In the past, campus-wide emails would be sent out saying that a student had died. Now, notifications will only go out when law enforcement and university officials determine there is a threat to the campus community as a whole, Vice Chancellor for Student Development Cindy Wallace said.

Deaths from causes like suicides, accidents and overdoses would not be reported for the most part.

Medical examiners determine the cause of death and in many cases the cause of the death is not communicated to university officials, Brown said.

The focus of attention in the wake of student deaths will go to what the student death protocol refers to as “affinity groups,” which include friends, roommates, teammates and other individuals who had close associations with the deceased.

A new group called the Student Postvention Response Team will be responsible for coordinating the response to a student death.

The group will include representation from the Office of Student Development, Dean of Students office, University Police, and the deceased’s academic department, among other potential parties. They will also work with student development to determine if any notification will be made to the campus community. In addition, they will work to identify and reach out members of the deceased affinity groups.

Counseling services and the CARE team will set up meetings with the members of the affinity groups.

The CARE team will also set up a grieving room in the student union to allow those close to the deceased, as well as other members of the campus community, to pay their respects.

While law enforcement is responsible for notifying families, the university will provide various services to the deceased’s family, including setting up accommodations, providing psychological support and help with securing the student’s belongings.

A black memorial book will be set out in front of the Dean of Students office, becoming available for all students to sign, and will ultimately be given to the family.

All families of deceased students are invited to the annual Student Memorial Program, but students are discouraged from holding private memorials to deceased students because of concerns that these private memorials might inadvertently glamorize death in way that might lead to “imitation or contagion issues,” according to the student death protocol.

Instead, students are encouraged to engage in community service activities to honor the deceased.

The postvention response team will meet one month after a student death to assess its handling of the situation and establish guidelines for future incidents.

‘Nobody sends out campus-wide emails’

Before this semester, the university had no formal death policy, Brown said.

The new policy had its roots in conversations that university leaders were having with other UNC figures about increasing safety on college campuses, Wallace said.

One aspect of those conversations was the distinction between handling crisis situations, which require special proceedings, and providing care to a university community.

That distinction became important early in the 2014-15 school year, when Anna Smith went missing and was ultimately found deceased.

Throughout the year, officials held conversations with students, faculty and staff about the incidents. Wallace said that many of those individuals said that the campus-wide announcements were creating anxiety on campus.

In spring 2015, the Office of Student Development began to study the policies and protocols used in the UNC system as well as from more than 50 universities across the country.

“Nobody sends out campus-wide emails, nobody,” Wallace said. “So we said, where our intention was to communicate and to get out factual information, what we felt was that we were not indeed doing what we intended to do.”

The campus community must be notified when crisis situations arise, but student deaths that do not pose a threat to the community do not fit that category, Wallace said.

“It’s a private tragedy that impacts a circle of people, and that is the where we started developing our policy,” Wallace said.

The new policy will allow the university to better serve those most directly affected by deaths.

“Is it our role to focus on the cause of a student’s death, or is it our role to respond appropriately to the loss of that precious loss and the people that are in that person’s circle?” Wallace said. “I think that’s what we determined was our most important job.”

Student Viewpoints

Stanley Broaden, an intern in the Office of Student Development, assisted in research for the policy and helping to write portions of the policy.

“I like the way it’s set up because it makes sure all the correct parties are informed and that there’s a centralized form of communication so that information that does get out is the correct information,” Broaden said.

SGA President Carson Rich spoke with Wallace and Brown over issues of messaging.

Rich said that he saw some level of mixed opinions on messaging. While some students he spoke with appreciated the messaging, others found that the messages caused unnecessary stress and distractions, Rich said.

“Something to keep in mind when these tragedies happen is to respect the ones who are in those circles of concern,” Rich said.

Story by: Kevin Griffen, Staff Reporter

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