The lawsuit filed against Penn by the parents of former Wharton junior Olivia Kong, who died by suicide in April 2016, reveals a new level of information on the alleged extent of University knowledge of Kong's suicidal intentions in the days leading up to her death.
University officials were notified nine separate times, by Kong and by others close to her, that Kong was having suicidal thoughts, the lawsuit claims, but did not take the appropriate steps to prevent her death.
“We became more and more convinced that this was absolutely preventable and should not have happened,” Carol Shepherd, one of the lawyers, said in an interview with The Daily Pennsylvanian. The suit was filed early Tuesday morning.
The first report of suicidal thoughts to the University was via a routine survey Kong filled out upon going to Student Health Service for an upper respiratory infection, the lawsuit alleges. She indicated in the survey that she had suicidal thoughts, and the notes from the SHS visit revealed that Kong had an elevated heart rate. Kong was seen by Amanda Swain, a physician at SHS, who reportedly instructed Kong to get a good night’s sleep.
Kong also notified Counseling and Psychological Services psychiatrist John Stein of her suicidal thoughts on two separate occasions.
The first time was at approximately 1:30 a.m. on April 7, 2016, after Kong allegedly called CAPS to request to speak to the on-call after-hours physician, who was Stein that night. According to Stein’s report submitted later that afternoon, Kong said she had suicidal thoughts. Stein also recorded in the report that Kong expressed a “hatred toward [herself]” for being behind on her classes and missing the withdrawal deadline for courses.
The second time Stein was alerted of Kong's suicidal thoughts came two days after the first. Stein called Kong after allegedly being notified by a graduate assistant, Kevin, who called the on-call physician, again Stein. Kevin, whose last name is not listed in the complaint, was made aware of Kong's suicidal thoughts on April 9 by Kong's friend, whom Kong told that day that she was “stressed at school” and was “thinking about suicide.”
Stein and Kong spoke on the phone for an hour, and according to Stein’s report of this call, Kong reportedly asked Stein for information about inpatient psychiatric admission, which Stein said was an option “if no other plan can work.” Kong allegedly expressed concerns over the cost of hospitalization.
“Given her [focus] on the concrete details of the cost [of] going to [the] ER, inpatient unit, I offered that the cost of [an] ER visit is likely less than [the] cost of funeral arrangements just in financial terms,” Stein added. The report also indicated that Kong told him that she was considering dying by suicide on Sunday after she returned from visiting her parents, who reside in Center City.
Stein did not respond to immediate request for comment.
CAPS social worker Nicole Nardone was notified of Kong's suicidal thoughts on more than one occasion as well. The complaint indicates that the first was the morning of April 7, after Kong first called Stein. She visited CAPS and spoke to Nardone for 40 minutes, making an appointment for a full follow-up visit at 3 p.m. on April 11, which would become the afternoon following Kong's death.
The complaint said that Kong reportedly told Nardone that she felt “suicide was an easier option than catching up with her studies.” Kong also reportedly added that she had been thinking of suicide as recently as the evening of the day before. Kong allegedly said that she thought about taking “sleeping pills” as a method of suicide, Nardone documented in the report.
Nardone was notified of Kong's thoughts of suicide once again after Teran Tadal, Kong's academic advisor, met with Kong and discussed her suicidal thoughts. Tadal then called CAPS clinical social worker Ken Meehan, who then asked Nardone to send Kong an email reminding Kong of CAPS’ walk-in hours.
Nardone sent Kong the email as instructed, telling Kong that she had the option to either “walk in,” call CAPS during business hours, or use the CAPS on-call clinical line should she become “distressed” before their appointment on April 11, the complaint alleges.
Swain, Nardone, Tadal, and Meehan all did not respond to immediate request for comment.
Shepherd reported at a press conference on Tuesday that Penn's records reflect nine times that University officials were notified of Kong's suicidal thoughts.
Kong's parents, Xianguo Kong and Zhao Lin, represented by three lawyers at the Feldman Shepherd law firm, allege in their complaint that Penn neglected to prevent Kong from dying by suicide and does not have the proper mental health resources to support similar students.
“The thing that so bothers me about this case is that some kids chew themselves up on the inside and don't reveal a lot,” Shepherd said. “This [case] is the antithesis of that.”
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