When a student dies: Penn's response
Death is handled in different ways across campus
January 25, 2014, 3:20 pm · Updated January 27, 2014, 12:20 am·
News travels fast.
Via University emails, Facebook posts, tweets and rumors, the whole campus can learn of a student death in a matter of hours. But what is the University’s process of notifying friends, family and community of a student death?
The University waits for official confirmation from a medical examiner or a hospital and a police investigation always follows. That begins a protocol, detailed in the Campus Emergency Procedures Manual.
There is a collaborative effort between different departments across campus. While each has its own duties during an emergency response, the “boundaries are not so clean, and the lines often get blurry,” Bill Alexander, who directs Counseling and Psychological Services, said.
While there are guidelines pertaining to different emergency responses, each situation is handled differently, with the family’s needs in mind.
Informing the family
When a student dies on campus or in the Penn Patrol Zone — which stretches between 30th and 43rd streets and from Market Street to Baltimore Avenue — the University chaplain will notify the family following an official confirmation from a medical examiner or hospital.
If a student dies outside the Penn Police Department’s jurisdiction, the responding authorities will normally notify the family. The University provides resources and assistance to the family including travel arrangements and lodging, if they travel to campus.
If a student dies at home or elsewhere, the family usually notifies the University.
Telling the Community
After calling the family, the University sends a notification to student communities who are impacted by the death. These communities include the student’s school, college house, clubs or Greek organization. The notification is also used to inform affected students of the resources available to them.
After the recent death of College freshman Madison Holleran, President Gutmann issued a statement. A public statement by Gutmann is not a standard procedure when a student dies.
“Given the public nature of this particular death and the unique circumstances, we felt a public statement was warranted,” University spokesperson Stephen MacCarthy said.
Whether or not a public statement is made, the President always communicates privately with the family of the student.
Helping the friends
Student Intervention Services generates lists of students who are in communities directly affected by the student death. Staff members of both CAPS and the Chaplain’s office reach out to students. In some cases, they have gone to college houses to help students on the night of a student death.
Director of SIS Sharon Smith declined to comment, citing the confidential nature of her work.
CAPS takes a stratified approach to counseling the student body. They begin with students directly involved in the particular crisis or immediate people who are affected, then reach out to other communities.
“We want to play close attention because there will be people whose emotional reaction is fear due to their own histories and events,” Alexander said.
CAPS also functions as a consultant or collaborator with larger university offices. Advice is often provided to staff and faculty about the appropriate way to address their students during a recent tragedy.
Alexander said there is a fine line between being present and being overbearing that CAPS tries to respect during a tragedy. Most people just need to grieve, but don’t need to be “psychologized,” he said. “[We] try to be aware on the sidelines, but we don’t want to be a central player.”