Administrators handle student death


Taylor Harrison

Six WKU students died last semester, and while fellow students, faculty, family and friends mourned loved ones, the WKU administration had to move past its grief to perform a larger duty. But campus officials also have procedures to follow upon hearing the news of a death and have to think about how best to handle the situation as it related to the family, students and the university.

Howard Bailey, vice president for Student Affairs, said WKU doesn’t have a particular policy dealing with student deaths, but there are certain procedures the university follows. 

WKU does not notify other students on campus about the death through an announcement or email.

“If you didn’t know who that person was, I don’t think that serves any value,” Bailey said.

When Bailey is notified of a student death, he informs President Gary Ransdell. Then they individually call the student’s family to express condolences.

Ransdell said they want to reach out to the families, and it’s also their responsibility to look after the best interests of students, friends and roommates who are mourning.

“That’s just part of what we are as an institution,” he said.

Bailey said now his calls to family members occur after they’ve already been informed of the death, but he used to have to be the one to notify the family.

“Before cellphones and emails and faxes and all of that, if a student died here in Bowling Green, I placed a call to the family to notify them that their son or daughter was deceased,” he said.

Bailey also sends a hard-copy memo to appropriate offices on campus, such as financial aid, the registrar and housing, which is done to close out students’ files and records.

“What you’re primarily trying to accomplish is, you don’t want a family to be getting mail and publications and whatever on behalf of that student,” he said. “You don’t want that kind of thing going to the home.”

Freida Eggleton, university registrar, said upon Bailey’s notification, the registrar’s office marks on the student information system that the student is deceased. The student is then withdrawn from his or her classes and a refund is sent to the next of kin.

Gail Ruble, administrative assistant in the office of Student Affairs, said their office notifies the student’s teachers that the student has died.

She also said that the six deaths last semester were the most she’s ever seen in one semester since she began working there more than 20 years ago.

While these offices are notified, the student body is not, so many students might not know that a fellow WKU student has died. Other universities in Kentucky have varying procedures about notifying their campus communities about a death.

Like WKU, the University of Kentucky doesn’t notify the campus about deaths through any type of announcement, according to its spokesperson Jay Blanton.

Eastern Kentucky University has a “business procedure” it follows when it comes to a former or current faculty member death, the university spokesperson, Marc Whitt, said.

“We will prepare and issue an email that comes from the president’s office to the campus,” he said.

Deborah Wilkins, general counsel at WKU, said there is no policy or procedure about notifying the campus of a faculty member’s or a student’s death.

Wilkins said there would be no legal problem with forwarding notice of a death, such as an obituary, “as long as you were either using something provided by the family or something that’s in the public domain. I don’t think we would want to go off and start writing obituaries for people, and then we might mistake something, or leave something out.”

Like WKU, EKU doesn’t send out notices of a student death, but Whitt said the university has a memorial every year in the spring to honor the students and faculty members who have died.

This is something WKU doesn’t do, but Bailey said it has been discussed, and he knows of other universities that hold memorials.

“But we have been much more receptive to letting those that had relationships with the deceased…memorialize that student the way they want to,” Bailey said. “I think it has a lot more meaning when the people that knew the individual are involved in that.”

Bailey said if he were the parent of a student who had died in September, he’s not sure he’d want to come back in the spring to hear his son or daughter’s name read from a list and be put through the mourning period again.

“To carry them back through that again for the benefit of the university, I don’t think serves any healthy purpose,” he said.

Mark Hebert, the University of Louisville’s director of media relations, said the university doesn’t send out campus-wide notifications of a death, but it used to.

“In a couple of instances, it came back to bite us,” Hebert said.

In one case, someone didn’t know a person had died and found out through the email, and in another, the family hadn’t wanted a notification sent out.

“So there is a downside,” Hebert said.

Betsy Pierce, a staff psychologist at WKU’s Counseling and Testing Center, said the death of a student or faculty member can be shocking, and the center would primarily want to remind people that it is always there for one-on-one counseling. With an invitation, the center will also do group sessions at places like residence halls or sororities to help students deal with losing a friend.

“It doesn’t really shorten the grief, but it normalizes it,” Pierce said. “It’s okay to be sad. It’s okay to be not yourself for a period of time. It’s okay not to feel up to the normal stuff for awhile.

“I think one of the main things about grief for any of us, anytime, is that there is no time limit on it, and there’s no one way to grieve,” she continued. “We all do it in our own way.”

Karl Laves, assistant director at the Counseling and Testing Center, has gone to some of the group grief sessions.

“I’ve been on too many,” he said. “It’s just kind of recognizing the idea that a death is going to affect lots of students in lots of different ways.”

At the sessions, Laves said they talk a lot about what to expect from grief to make sure students aren’t scared of their reactions. The sessions can be questions and answers, but they also give students a chance to share.

“A lot of times, students are ready to tell stories about the person who died,” he said.

Bailey said after a student death, it’s important to accommodate the family. 

“It does concern me….with all the quick social media now, I really fear that some parent’s going to be informed through cellphone or Facebook before they can be appropriately and officially notified,” he said.

Bailey sends a letter to families after everything is said and done to reassure them that everything is taken care of and to allow them to contact him if they need to. He and other staff members also attend the funerals when possible. 

“It’s not a part of my job that I enjoy,” he said. “And every one of those calls that I’ve ever made to notify the family are etched on my brain. I remember every one of them. The circumstances around them, the time of day, time of night. That’s not something you ever want to have to do and…that’s not in your educational training, to say how to do that. It’s not something that I enjoy.”