Departments work to appropriately notify community of deaths by suicide

Storm clouds illuminated by the sunset form over campus on June 14, 2016. (Archive Photo by Evert Nelson | Collegian Media Group)

When a student passes away, the Office of Student Life has a tough job: calling the family.

“In the event of a student passing, we are the next phone call to the student’s family after they have been notified by the police,” said Andy Thompson, senior assistant dean and director of the Office of Student Life. “The purpose of that phone call is to offer our condolences and our sympathies, but also to explain what our steps are, as a university, will be from that point forward.”

Thompson said the office works to take as much pressure off the family as possible. They act as the liaison and point of contact to communicate with necessary offices to handle the student’s accounts.

“We have put in place procedures so that when the registrar’s office, financial aid office, housing or even parking services gets that notice, they will have procedures for themselves to resolve that student’s account,” Thompson said.

Thompson said notices to campus offices and other campus partners as well as other procedures are carried out within a day or two of when the university learns of any student’s passing.

“We usually include, in these notices, who the student is, when they passed and even memorial service information,” Thompson said. “We also will send the notice out to faculty members who interact with the student, the adviser of the student, the dean of that student’s academic college, because we know there’s lots of things every student is involved with where folks will want to go to the memorial service or at least send their condolences or flowers and other things of that nature.”

Thompson said an informational delay can sometimes occur, not because information is being withheld, but because there is not always enough information to share.

“A lot of times when there is no information coming out it’s because there may be things the family or police are still trying to resolve,” Thompson said. “We want to make sure that the language that we are sharing is the right thing, as well as only sharing information the family is comfortable with us sharing.”

Lt. Bradli Millington, support services coordinator for K-State Police, said communicating any death involving a member of the Kansas State community is a multiple approach process, but the notification process starts with them.

“To assist everybody and get the healing process started, it starts with us letting the family know, then working with the Office of Student Life, and let them all know that we are here to help them,” Millington said.

Millington said any death on campus or K-State property is met with a full investigation. For a death by suicide specifically, the process runs until the death can be proven to be caused by suicide.

“There is an autopsy to make sure there is no criminal intent or aspect to the death,” Millington said. “We will have the coroner come, run a crime scene and run what we need to do. Then we go to an investigative process to gather all of the evidence needed to prove it was a suicide.”

Millington said the length of an investigation can range from a day to multiple weeks, depending on how difficult it is to obtain the information needed to confirm a death by suicide.

“We try and wait until we have all the answers before we say it is a suicide,” Millington said. “We may put out some basic information to the public, but we won’t declare a cause until it is proven.”

Heather Reed, assistant vice president of student life, senior associate dean and director of student life, said the development around the communication about suicide and suicidal ideation at K-State has grown significantly in recent years.

“We have always let the family of the deceased guide the communication through us, but when we started, there were much fewer cases, and it wasn’t really talked about as much, and now people aren’t shying away from it like they may have in the past,” Reed said.

Reed said a huge challenge in appropriately communicating a suicide is the emergence of social media as an informational pathway.

“Sometimes the information is correct, sometimes it isn’t,” Reed said. “So we make sure that what we share is correct information, and it is shared in a way the family is comfortable with.”

Reed said their strategy focuses on sharing basic information while the details emerge.

“We will go ahead and make phone calls to faculty or a department, because we know it will get out there, and let them know the university is aware, but we are still waiting to get more details,” Reed said.

Reed and Thompson both said the Office of Student Life is committed to improving its outreach to students to support them in reaching academic goals.