Canadian Universities Aren’t Quite Ready for Death in the 21st Century
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Canadian Universities Aren’t Quite Ready for Death in the 21st Century

While a death becomes news immediately on social media, many schools still treat it like a private matter.
October 10, 2017, 7:20pm

I've been a Ryerson University student for three years now and for every year, I can name at least one student from my school that died. What's weird is that I never found out about them through my university. Two weeks ago when Julia Sokolov, a 22-year-old business student from Ryerson was murdered I only heard about it through a friend who was in her program. This was because the university decided to only email students in her faculty. But it took less than a day for the news to spread on Facebook, so the exclusivity of the email felt unnecessary and kind of weird.

Aimee Morrison felt the same way at another Canadian university. Morrison is an associate English professor at the University of Waterloo who was teaching first-years this spring when Chase Christopher Graham, a 19-year-old student, was found dead near his campus residence. The University of Waterloo responded a two days later with a press release that doesn't mention Graham's name. The day before Graham's younger brother had posted on Reddit calling out the university for their cold response.

"They say they offer their deepest sympathies when they never even gave us the courtesy of a phone call," he said on the thread, referring to a quote from Waterloo's director of media relations Matthew Grant that was published in Imprint, the school's independent newspaper. Graham's mother Andrea confirmed in an interview with the Imprint that the university never contacted her. (Waterloo declined to comment on an "individual cases" for this story.)

Morrison herself only found out about the thread from her students. It prompted her to write a blog post calling out the university for not acknowledging Graham's brother.

"That's several days of Daily Bulletins with nothing. No memos. Nothing. For shame," she said in her post.

There's a reason it happened—really outdated policy.

Most universities call it the "Death of a Student Policy" and they've probably been sitting on website servers for years. The policy outlines immediate responses to a death on campus, including who calls the family, how to deal with a grieving student body and what do with tuition costs, parking tickets, and roommates.

Some Canadian universities like the University of Alberta and Queen's University have their procedures readily available online. But most Canadian universities don't. The ones that are available follow the same basic format—form a response team, respond to the situation, deal with the aftermath. Some other specifics are also outlined. Most universities will refund term tuition and residence fees, plan a memorial, relocate roommates and inform professors that the student won't be in class (because they're dead).

There are reports of suicide and increasing depression amongst students every other week and university administrations are struggling, and mostly failing under the pressure of it. When I read through all the procedures it felt like there was this divide between administrative and student bodies in Canadian universities. The processes were so formulaic. And perhaps that's the problem—those cold, bureaucratic processes. Procedure can't always work with something as tragic and sudden as death and the intangible grief that follows.

I noticed what most policies have in common are precise terms on who gets to know what's going on. "Death of a Student" procedures are very specific in keeping the information of a student's death amongst the top administrative people. These guys decide when the family and the rest of the school is informed. They have to follow procedure, which is time-consuming and why, like in the case of Waterloo, they mess up.

"Universities think they can issue one press release three days after the death and that will suffice," said Morrison on a phone call.

"Students want to talk now and they want to talk about their feelings and they have really low tolerance for what sounds like public relations talk or what sounds like damage control."

I spoke to Morrison about the aftermath of her blog post. She says Graham's mother reached out to her through email afterwards, thanking her. University administration also reached out, but their response seemed superficial.

"They've created a 'working group', that's how these things work," said Morrison.

Grant says that Waterloo has "increased the frequency of communications on matters related to mental health, suicide" and "attempted" to get more people involved with talks about the school's mental health policies.

But for Morrison seeing her students walk into class the day after the incident, pretending that nothing happened, is what pushed her to speak out.

She took an intimate approach, sat her class down and asked them how they were feeling. When her students responded to her, with grief and anger, she decided to confront university administration.

What she found was an administration that was surprised students knew so much in such little time.

"They are still living in last year's world, and by last year's world I mean a pre-internet world where there's an idea that the flow of information about tragic events can somehow be controlled at the centre or at the top of the hierarchy."

Death of a Student policies are created by members of university administrations and the procedures are designed around legal constraints and "common sense" as Dr. André Costopoulos, the Dean of Students at University of Alberta puts it.

But the legal constraints make things tricky, especially in the case of suicides where police enter as the main investigative body. There's only one professional guide that's been written on post-suicide and death campus procedures that I could find. It was put together by the Higher Education Mental Health Alliance in 2014. But most Canadian universities' policies don't reflect their recommendations. The guide points out that timing is crucial, and that pre-planning who responds in student deaths helps with that. Most university procedures have the task of a creating a "response team" as their first step, which means it happens after the death has already occurred. Most of the procedures are, at most, only updated on a yearly basis.

According to Morrison, part of the problem is universities not talking to students about how to fix things that affect them.

"[Students] get the sense that the university does not want to talk about these things, that they don't want to talk to students in a realistic and unvarnished way," she said.

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