Sunday, November 8, 2015

My very most latest response to UHM administration on the student death protocol issue

The ASUH resolution, passed unanimously on Sept. 23rd, was in support of a student death protocol. The Graduate Student Organization passed a similar resolution by a similar vote (one vote only was negative). The Vice Chancellor for Students has responded to the resolution with a 2 1/2 page letter to say thanks, but no thanks. Here is the resolution; what follows is my response to the VCS's letter. (Click to enlarge.)

7 November 2015

Dear Regents, President Lassner, Chancellor Bley-Vroman, Mānoa Faculty Senate, and representatives of ASUH and GSO:

I write in response to the letter of 30 October 2015 from VCS Lori Ideta, which in turn responds to the ASUH Resolution 06-16 “in Support of More Integral Procedures in the UHM Protocol Regarding Deceased Students,” which passed on 23 September. This resolution, passed unanimously, is similar to one passed by the GSO, which voted overwhelmingly in favor of theirs. It calls for better communication in the event of tragedies at UHM, as well as a wider net for grief counseling. The GSO resolution also calls for more attention to suicide prevention on the UHM campus. I strongly support the student government resolutions. Let me respond here to VCS Ideta's letter.

My deep investment in this issue is based on my having had a student in a class over a year ago who was deeply traumatized by witnessing another student's death. Other students were deeply distressed that day, and some remain so. I wondered why I had no knowledge of a tragedy on campus, or any idea how to handle it. I have heard since from students and colleagues who had to do research on-line to find out what happened to a classmate; who wondered what had happened to a student who disappeared; who put together a memorial service for a friend on their own, rather than with the help of the university.

In the second paragraph of the response to ASUH, VCS Ideta et al write: “the UHM campus has long-established uniform protocols and practices to compassionately, appropriately, and sensitively respond to death.” The only death protocol I was given, when I asked, was two pages long, and desperately out of date. Where are the documents? What are these protocols and practices? Why does the administration not share this information and knowledge with students or faculty?

Issues of family notification and privacy concerns come up in VCS Ideta's letter. The resolution addresses this issue, too: “the ASUH fully respects the privacy of the family and 'ohana of deceased students,” they write. As for the privacy concerns covered by FERPA, they do not extend beyond a student's death; FERPA relates to educational records, not the announcement of a death.

The VCS's mention of a “glorification of suicide” is simply over the top. For cutting edge material on preventing “suicide contagion” in reporting a death, I ask that you refer to the following resource, used by media and universities across the country to explain “safe messaging” in the case of suicide: Suicide is the second leading cause of death among the college age population in this country; saying nothing about it is simply not an option. The question is how to talk about it, and so prevent further suicides.

The VCS's assertion that benchmark institutions operate largely without protocols is highly misleading. There are 18 benchmark institutions, which you can find by googling “UHM benchmark institutions.” Among their ways to deal with student deaths are the following, existing with or without a full on-line protocol:

Annual memorial services for deceased faculty, staff and students: SUNY-Buffalo; U of Missouri, U of Oregon; UC-Berkeley.
Compassionate communication to the community from administration: Indiana University, UC-Davis, UCLA, University of Minnesota, CU-Boulder, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Colorado State, LSU, and the University of Virginia (which is a peer institution, not a benchmark, according to the records I found). This includes obituaries in newspapers and on-line.
Posthumous degrees: U of Oregon, University of Minnesota, University of Missouri.
Behavioral Intervention Teams: Arizona State University, the University of Oregon, (as well as the University of Washington-Bothell, which is a benchmark institution to UHWO) have Behavioral Intervention Teams, which are a current “best practice.” To find out more about BITs, which provide eyes and ears to locating distressed students, please see here:

Would you rather learn of the death of your student, colleague, or classmate by way of Facebook rumors or from a leader at the university? Would you feel comfortable hearing about a death on campus from local or even international media sources, or from someone at this institution? Would you like such communications to include information about where to find grief counseling on campus? These are questions we need to ask ourselves.

Further: would you rather be at an institution that takes student needs and desires into consideration or one that thanks them and then ignores their votes? That, also, we need to think about.

Finally, I ask you to consider the first paragraph of the UC-Berkeley Chancellor's Compliance Services page that reads: “How we handle death reflects how we value people in our community. As a campus, not only do we celebrate each others' accomplishments, but we are supportive and compassionate during difficult times. Good communication is particularly important following the loss of a member of our campus community.” Or listen to our own students, when they write in the ASUH resolution: “acknowledgement of an incidence of death within a community may in itself serve as a commemoration for the life of the deceased.”

Yours truly,

Susan M. Schultz
Professor of English

Attached: Resource Sheet

University Mental Health Resource Sheet

(selected resources from benchmark institutions only—other colleges and universities have great resources, too)

Protocols from other institutions

Relevant Mental Health Organizations

The Jed Foundation:

National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH):

Safe Messaging about Suicide:

Suicide Prevention Resource Center:

Action Alliance:

Expressions of Support to Communities from benchmark institutions

University of Wisconsin-Madison:

Wisconsin-Madison obituaries:

LSU on-line memorial site:

Campus memorials

Posthumous degrees

University of Missouri:

University of Minnesota:

University of Oregon: