As of Wednesday night, many Penn parents only knew about one undergraduate death this year — the well-publicized suicide of College freshman Madison Holleran on Jan. 17. But learning that the total number since winter break climbed to four left those who didn’t know stunned.
“This is the first I’m hearing of this,” parent Jessica Smith said Wednesday night of the four deaths. “I’m processing. And I’m freaking out a little.”
As campus reels from the Tuesday suicide of College sophomore Elvis Hatcher — three weeks after Holleran’s death and the deaths of Engineering and Wharton senior Kevin Zhao and Engineering and Wharton junior Josh Singh over winter break — parents, when informed, worry for their sons and daughters at school.
“It’s nerve-wracking,” said parent Mary Phillips of Virginia, whose daughter is a College sophomore. Phillips had previously only heard of Holleran’s death and was startled to hear about the other three. “You wonder about the pressure, you worry about what all these circumstances are.”
Penn tries to limit notifications of a student death to impacted student communities, leaving most unaffected parents out of the process. While some wish they’d known so they could have reached out to their children, others prefer Penn’s method.
“You have to balance the privacy of the individual,” parent and 1988 Wharton MBA recipient Jeanne Rossomme said. She preferred the style of the email that Penn President Amy Gutmann, Provost Vincent Price and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli sent to parents Monday night reviewing mental health resources: a focus on the issues, Rossomme said, not the specifics of each death.
“It’s a little after the fact,” Phillips said of the email. “But maybe a reminder’s good.”
Parents threw out suggestions for communication from the University: an email sent to parents and students outlining signs of depression, faster and more accurate information about what had happened in deaths, more avenues for discussion. But ultimately, they said, it just comes down to being able to reach out to their children in what may be a time of need.
The Sunday after the Johnson family heard about Holleran’s death, parent Bill Johnson said, his wife called their children at Penn. “She said, ‘I love you, I love you, if you have anything to talk about, come talk to us.’”
Smith wasn’t waiting any longer to touch base with her student.
“I’m going to call my child right now,” she said as she hung up the phone.