Va. colleges vary in reporting student suicides

Liz Butterfield
Capital News Service

After the recent deaths of two Virginia Commonwealth University students were ruled as suicides, students around Virginia are asking questions about how universities report student deaths to their campus communities.

From 2003 to 2012, at least 213 Virginia college students committed suicide, according to information collected by the Virginia Violent Death Report System.

There is no legal mandate requiring institutions of higher learning to disclose a student death to a campus community. The decision is up to the individual college. Additionally, there is no agency that ultimately collects data and reports from universities.

This is largely due to the criminal nature of the death reports and investigations, said Virginia Powell, an investigator with the Virginia Violent Death Reporting System.

“(Suicide) is immediately a criminal matter,” Powell said. “As soon as that 911 call gets made, the college or university is not going to have control over that death scene. And then (a person’s death record) really goes to the next-of-kin.”

There is no law that requires the medical examiner to disclose information to the college, Powell said.

The VCU Capital News Service reported in 2013 that Virginia suicide rates were at their highest in 13 years. The Virginia Department of Health classifies suicide as a “violent death.”

A VDH report analyzing student suicide from 2003 to 2008, found that 149 college students’ deaths (106 males, 43 females) were ruled as suicides, but these numbers accounted for only 3 percent of suicides in the entire commonwealth.

Additionally, 56 percent of those suicides had known mental health problems, most of whom had received past treatment or were in the process of undergoing treatment in the two months prior to their death. More than one-third of those students were experiencing a major life crisis two weeks prior to death, according to the study.

The VVDRS works with law enforcement and other resources to compile its own information about college suicides in the state by flagging any death certificates where the individual’s occupation was listed as “student”.

Universities may decide for themselves whether or not to share student death information with the campus community. Universities are not required by law to report suicides to college communities. However, several Virginia schools including the College of William & Mary, University of Mary Washington, Longwood University, Old Dominion University, Virginia Military Institute and Virginia Tech opt to inform their campus communities.

William & Mary has endured eight known student suicides since 2000, and Virginia Tech has lost eight students to suicide since the 2009-2010 school year. Both colleges have formal reporting policies regarding student deaths.

“We think it’s certainly best practice to be sure any information about a student death is accurate and in the best interest of the community,” said Jodi Fisler, Ph.D., assistant to the vice president at William & Mary. “We want to make sure that rumors aren’t taking hold.”

William & Mary’s formal protocol for reporting student deaths to the community has been in place for about three years, Fisler said, but the college said it was following the policy well beforehand.

VCU does not have a formal policy to inform the student body on student deaths, “Because it happens infrequently, and because sometimes we find out after the fact,” said Reuban Rodriguez, dean of students and associate vice provost. “It’s difficult to then turn around and say, ‘let’s notify the entire VCU community.’”

Although there is no overall reporting agency that mandates the policies of the universities, some recent Virginia General Assembly legislation improves access for patients seeking mental health help.

A bill sponsored by state Sen. Creigh Deeds, D-Charlottesville, will extend the emergency custody order for psychiatric patients to 24 hours. Deeds’ bill was propelled through the General Assembly after Deeds was attacked by his son, Gus, who then committed suicide in their home last November.

Other legislation works to limit information access concerning college students. The Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, a federal law passed in 1974, restricts access to student education records.

Because public universities accept federal dollars, they are required to comply with both FERPA and the Jeanne Clery Disclosure of Campus Security Policy and Campus Crime Statistics Act. The Clery Act, enacted in 1990, requires public colleges and universities to disclose information about imminent threats on and near campus.

VCU’s Director of University Counseling Jihad Aziz, Ph.D., said universities may choose not to tell the community about a student death based on the family’s desire for privacy.

“The thing I think is most important for the university to do is to acknowledge that there might be some difficulties that people are experiencing,” Aziz said, “and help to point them in the right direction.”

Although college students assume stress levels related to schoolwork, a “school problem” was noted in only seven percent of cases for men and about 12 percent of cases for women.

Twenty-seven percent of those students also had a history of attempted suicide, and only seven percent of suicides happened on a college campus or in a dormitory.

Student suicide information since 2009 is undergoing study by the VVDRS, said Marc Leslie, the VVDRS coordinator.

Although the VVDRS identifies college students who committed suicide, the group does not work with the universities to obtain the information.

“We’d be happy to work with the colleges if they wanted us to, but they don’t have data on suicides of students really,” Leslie said. “The college won’t really have any information about that, aside from what they hear.

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