Saturday, April 9, 2016

Student Deaths at the University of Hawai'i: Part III

On Monday, March 28, I was preparing to travel to Los Angeles for a writer's conference. I got up that morning to open my email, expecting the usual departmental dribs and drabs, notes from friends, the typical morning haul. Instead, the following subject line caught my eye:

Crisis Intervention for Students Affected by a Tragedy

The email below the header came from the mother of a freshman; she wondered how to get help for her son, who needed to process the loss of a friend. On that Saturday night--two weeks ago now--a young woman died at one of the dorms on campus. This was the first I'd heard of it. She found me because google answers searches for "student death at UH" with a link to my op-ed about the need for a student death protocol. She hadn't found a central site at UHM that listed resources to use in such events, probably because there is none. The website needs a major renovation. If you are faculty, to cite just one example, and you enter off the main page through "Faculty & Staff" to look for "support services," you don't find the Counseling Service. Instead, you find the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. That link was put there after I requested that the counseling center be made easier to find.

But enough about the website. A young woman had died tragically, and UHM administration had told us nothing. On Facebook, I found an announcement posted to the Kamehameha Schools alumni site, alongside a sweet selfie: "We have lost a part of our 'ohana. Kalena Medeiros, class of 2015 (Hawai'i Campus) passed away early yesterday morning. Please keep her and her family in your prayers. Thank you and Happy Easter." This was posted on March 27. I sent the note on to our interim Chancellor, along with a request that he say something to the larger community. He responded with a note about family notification and permission, which is the usual way to say no, at least not yet.

The first mother I heard from was not the last. While in Los Angeles, I heard from a second mother, who wondered how to help her son move from his dorm room into a space that was less traumatizing. He'd been sleeping on floors and even took Uber to Mililani (quite a drive) to stay with a friend there. I sent her message straight to the Chancellor. I later heard back that the Vice Chancellor for Students had called the mother and that "she seemed grateful" (the VCS's words). When I wrote Mother #2 a follow up message, she reported that housing had made something happen for her son, and that he'd been moved. Like Mother #1 she seemed too grateful to me for steering her to resources on campus that should be easy to find.

Every time I've engaged in a dialogue with administration (the VCS, the Dean of Students/Head of Student Housing, and the Counseling Center head, who is faculty), I've been told about the way they target students in the dorms after a tragedy. According to them, they do it well, by finding friends of the deceased and by looking up his or her affiliations on campus. They tell students on that floor of the dorm (or whatever other limited area) how to find help. They have resident counselors, as well as RAs. Yesterday, I met with Mother #1 and her son, who is a friend of the deceased woman's boyfriend and his roommate (now moved into another room). The son had never received an email to inform him about where to get counseling. As in many of these stories, the targeting of affected students is so very fine that it misses even those closest to the deceased.

It turns out that the deceased woman was a student at KCC, not at UHM, and that she was living with her boyfriend in the dorm. Like the last two people to fall (or "fall"?) from the dorms, she was not one of our students. Her lack of affiliation with our university is no reason to ignore her death. KCC has made no announcement either, I'm told. And the only reason that the death and serious injuries of the two men who fell this past August became known to us was that the story broke internationally. It was the case of a Good Samaritan dying to try to save someone who intended to kill himself. The Good Samaritan died, and the suicidal man survived. At the time, UHM's communications person, Dan Meizenzahl, made statements, but only in response to the media. They careened from the distant to the compassionate, and he vowed that UHM would do something about the windows in the dorms, making them harder to fall out of. UHM's administration never told the community about counseling, never suggested to faculty that they be aware of a traumatic situation faced by their students, never expressed condolences to the community, never mentioned a memorial.

This past December, I found out about the death of a Botany post-doc, first from Will Caron at The Independent, because someone on campus had told him that police and ambulances were swarming around St. John's Hall. When I contacted the person who told Will, he reported that it had been part of his job to follow up on that report, but that he'd been turned away from the scene and had to spend an entire day putting together puzzle pieces to figure out what had happened. I've found out about other deaths in this byzantine way, by putting stories told me by two people together, or by finding out from my friend who works at Revolution Books and is tied into many communities of students and faculty. There is never a direct path of transmission or reception, only the tortured path that leads to gossip, and to a lot of pain. If we are not allowed to know that someone died, how can we grieve? If we can't grieve, how can we lead our daily lives without traumatic distractions? Not knowing is not a cure for death or for a survivor's pain. To the contrary.

So what to do? I and my Compassion Hui have advocated up and down the UHM administrative ladder. We organized and held a Celebration of Life in February to mark the passing of members of the community over the past year or so. We send out occasional emails to the faculty list. We are a DIY function of the community, filling in for the huge gaps in administrative practice. In the Fall, we hope to hold an "Out of the Darkness Walk" against suicide. But we're hardly going rogue. Consider that other universities, dozens of them, do it better. I enumerated a few in my last piece on institutional compassion for The Independent, but here's a new one from Tufts University.

This letter follows what seems to be standard practice at universities that do this well. Here's an outline.

--An announcement of the death with brief description of the deceased.
--Information about counseling at the dorm and a meeting to support students (that very evening).
--Information about the counseling center.
--The promise to follow up with announcement of a memorial service.
--An expression of condolences to the student's family and friends.
--The names of five prominent people on campus, from the president to the chaplain, who sign the letter.
--Four additional resources for students.
--Resources for faculty.

This message was sent out several hours after the young man died. Just this morning (4/11) a student at UT-Austin sent me a series of emails on a recent murder on their campus. They're gathered here, easily found on their webpage:

I met a few months ago with the interim Chancellor, his new communications person, and an aide. The Chancellor was responsive, vowed to do better. In some ways, the administration has done better lately. After a lab explosion in a building in March, the community got a message that told us where the counseling center is, for example. But his desire to split off his own communications with the community from the "crisis management" end of things, something he laid out at that meeting, simply won't work. If the crisis managers are deeply invested in containing tragedies by informing only those they think are directly involved--and they are deeply invested in this method--then the Chancellor cannot (at least in his own mind) communicate what is otherwise being hidden. Need I add that nearly everyone in UHM administration is an interim these days: we have an interim Chancellor, interim VCS, interim Dean of Students, interim Dean of my college. The positions that are not held by interims are often precarious in other ways: the Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs, for example, is under investigation and has a vote of no confidence against him from the Faculty Senate. No one's running the show.

In the meantime, it's been two weeks since Kalena Medeiros died on our campus, and we've heard nothing. The email that my Compassion Hui sent out the other day to inform faculty of resources alluded to the recent tragedy and was met with many responses of thanks and confessions of bewilderment. Faculty simply do not know about these resources, even where to seek them out. Purdue Psychology Prof. Heather Servaty-Seib, with whom I spoke yesterday on Google chat, specializes in student bereavement issues. She noted that no one is supposed to die in college. It's a subject no one wants to confront. And yet her campus has a bereavement policy for students. If they are grieving, they must be allowed to hand in late work. Of course she and colleagues and students got the policy not by arguing along humanitarian lines, but by pointing out the bottom line. You can retain students better if you give them space to grieve. Mother #1's son will be leaving UHM at the end of this semester and will attend another school, one that is smaller and more compassionate. It's a real loss to UHM; he's a lively, warm, smart young man. One of my colleagues who taught him in honors composition described him as one of the best students she's ever had. The boyfriend of the deceased woman has dropped out. Doubtless other students are wondering what to do next. Doubtless also, counselors at our center are doing their very best to keep students going. But there are too few of them, and their services are poorly advertised. As Prof. Servaty-Seib pointed out, sometimes counseling is not what's needed after a tragedy. The creation of support groups is. Where are our support groups? She also pointed me to an on-line resource for grieving students, here.

Several weeks ago, thanks again to Google's search engine, I heard from family members of Abel Pellegrino, who died in September, 2014 after he fell from the top of the stairs into the quarry beside the dorms. They are not immediate family, but they were close to Abel, spent a lot of time with him, advised him, loved him. No one in the family, they told me, had been contacted by UHM administration after he died. There had been one call, answered by a 12-year old. Another call was promised, but it never came. A year later, another grieving mother did get a note of condolences from someone in administration, or so I heard from a third party. But this latest mismanaged tragedy tells me there's a lot more to be done, more arguments to be made, more DIY work, more grassroots action on our campus to make it a more compassionate place. The counselor at my son's school just wrote to ask me how UHM could make the transition from high school to college easier, socially and emotionally. I was nearly at a loss for words. When they came, in a flood, they were not encouraging.

After opening that first email of Monday, March 29, and trying to deal with this tragedy on our campus, I opened another. From that message, sent by a friend in the History department who is a member of our group, I learned that an international student who had worked for my small press for a year and who had house and cat sat for us several years ago, someone I was very fond of, someone whose wife I also know, had killed himself in the DC suburbs. He leaves behind his wife and a two year old daughter.

Yesterday, I found an obituary for Kalena Medeiros. I sent a message to our Chancellor that read, "it's not a secret," and he thanked me.




Anonymous said...

Wondering if Kalena's death was an accident or suicide? From my understanding she fell from the "rooftop".

susan said...

One wonders.