Penn has instituted a new policy for reporting student deaths to the student body.
In the wake of more than a dozen student deaths, including 10 reported suicides since 2013, the University has drawn criticism for its inconsistent method of announcing student deaths to the University community.
In April 2016, the University’s handling of the announcement of the death of Wharton junior Olivia Kong provoked a negative reaction on campus. An email from the President’s Office notified students of Kong’s death but did not mention her name. Wharton then informed its undergraduates about the news via email 20 minutes later and provided Kong’s name, but she was not identified to the full University.
Students also criticized the email for referring to her death as “an accident,” when it was ruled a suicide.
Other student deaths in the last three years have been handled on an individual basis, with emails alerting the student population being sent by different administrators and saying different things.
After having a conversations the Undergraduate Assembly, among others, Vice Provost for University Life Valarie Swain-Cade McCoullum said the students have requested two main things: that the University be timely in announcing students’ deaths, and that it be as respectful as possible to the student’s memory, to family members and to friends.
“Any notifications in the past have been episodic,” Cade said. “Well-intentioned and thoughtful people do what they thought was best for one community ... but it’s created situations where one group of students, a small group of students, might hear information that actually might not have been as accurate, or another group of students might not hear of anything.”
The University now aims to inform the Penn community in a more systematic way, according to the new policy. Cade said in the case of an undergraduate death, the entire community will be sent an email notification from her directly. In the case of a graduate or professional student death, those communities will be notified directly, and the notices will be sent to The Daily Pennsylvanian afterward — as has been the case for the two student deaths this semester. The range of people notified in those cases will vary by the community, sometimes being a student’s closest colleagues, and other times being the entire school for the smaller graduate schools.
“Graduate and professional students told me something that was different when we had the conversation,” Cade said. “What they said to me is they define their communities more often by their graduate group and/or their department.”
Announcements will mention the location of the death as well as any long-standing illness that the student may have suffered that the family chooses to disclose. The University also plans to send an official release with any additional information to be published on the Penn News website. The policy also extends to parents, who will be alerted with new information following a student death. Cade said that in consultation with Penn Parents, they found that families wanted to know what was going on to help their students cope.
She noted that students’ voices are important to the University.
“I do think that it is our commitment to the student community that asked us to do this, to let you all know,” Cade added.
Counseling and Psychological Services Director Bill Alexander said the University is making the right decision in implementing more transparent policies, though he is not directly involved in the University’s decision-making process in announcing student deaths.
“What students told me and what we really really attended to is that it’s really important for a student, for the community, to be notified,” Cade said. “Not just to assume that because a student was a member of a particular class or a particular major, her or his ties reached throughout the institution, and that really was an important message that we really took to heart.”
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