Op-Ed: Perspective on “Responding to campus crisis”

May 8, 2012, 12:02 a.m.

I read last Monday’s article about a recent campus suicide and another student’s death with a heavy heart. When death or severe illness comes to those who are young it feels especially tragic. Every life is precious, but the weight of the news is heavier when a young life is involved. Although I did not know either student, I felt that added weight while reading “Responding to Campus Crisis  (April 30) about the deaths of Sam Wopat and Cady Hine. Admittedly I am particularly vulnerable right now. A young woman who has been dear to me since her birth has been in an intensive care unit for the past three weeks after contracting bacterial meningitis in her freshman year at another university. It breaks my heart that she is critically sick and that there is nothing I can do; it pains me to not know the details of her status. But it has been her parents’ choice to share information sparingly. They are dealing with more than any parent should have to deal with right now. They can’t give more than they are giving, including the retelling of emotionally painful medical updates. And so I don’t ask. What they want friends to know, they will eventually share. For now, we send them unconditional love rather than looking for what they could be providing to us. It’s not about us.

I found parallels between my current emotional roller coaster and the comments recapped in last Monday’s Daily article. In conveying information about a student death or illness, the University has a clear position: We defer to the right to privacy of those most affected, namely the student or the student’s family. As community members, understandably, we want to know when something has happened to one of our own. Knowing the details helps us to feel as though we have some control over a crisis, even when logic tells us that events are outside of our control. For students, the Deans of Red Ed and Student Life, leaders at CAPS, Resident Fellows, the Vice Provost for Student Affairs and Resident Assistants (RAs) can offer support, but they cannot always provide the information students seek. Sometimes we have to accept that detailed information won’t be forthcoming. First and foremost it is about the family. It’s not about us.

I do not mean to suggest that students have no agency in the discussion of tragic campus events. We are a community – clearly you do. Rather, I am stating that you don’t always have primacy. At Stanford we try to create living and learning environments that are about you. We condition you to expect primacy and try to live up to that expectation.  But in responding to life’s challenges we must remind ourselves of the difference between these two – in one situation we may have a right to full information, but under different circumstances others may have an overriding right or responsibility to withhold it from us. During this past crisis, others weighed the balance between softening student concern by providing information and protecting the privacy of those closest to the tragedy. They correctly chose the latter.

Monday’s article poignantly conveyed the frustration that some students, particularly RAs, felt with the University’s crisis response. In building support systems for our dorm communities, the University trains RAs in the methods of QPR or Question, Persuade, Refer, which addresses the difficult topic of suicide. Perhaps in this case the QPR training was not sufficient, as the RAs close to the tragedy expressed concern with their ability to confidently respond in a time of crisis. The community, including the Student Mental Health and Well Being Oversight Committee of which I am a member, is already learning from their frustration. What we learn may not significantly alter what the University can communicate in a crisis, but hopefully through this discussion we will find ways to increase student agency and deepen RA training.

My heart goes out to those who have lost a friend. It also goes out to those who wanted to offer comfort and guidance to others, but felt constrained or otherwise unable to do so. What we can give to the memory of the women we have lost in recent weeks is a willingness to talk openly about depression, suicide and sudden death. We can learn how to support each other more effectively, while never losing sight of our responsibility to protect the privacy of those most affected.


Julie Kennedy

Professor (Teaching), Environmental Earth System Science

Faculty Co-Director, Haas Center for Public Service

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