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Research Report

3 Questions About Student Death and Institutional Readiness Presidents Should Ask Their VPSA Annually

Having Hard Conversations in Good Times

Bringing up student death is uncomfortable, yet unavoidable. In recent years, it has become even more important for college leaders to proactively discuss this topic with key campus stakeholders as concerns about campus safety and student well-being increase. Presidents are often asked to offer decision support to the student death response team and serve as the “healer-in-chief.” Students, faculty, and staff look to presidents to help navigate the grieving and healing process when a tragedy happens.

Despite their pivotal role, we found that most presidents do not discuss their student death protocol or their specific role in the institution’s response with their vice president for student affairs (VPSA) until a student death occurs. This is a very high-risk moment to make critical decisions about next steps. Mishandling a student’s death can have far-reaching consequences: faculty and staff can lose faith in leadership, students may call for administrators’ resignations based on perceived inaction and insensitivity, and families may feel unsupported and take legal action against the institution.

Over the last year, EAB conducted research on how to facilitate healing on campus in the aftermath of student deaths. Our research team found that having proactive conversations about the institution’s student death response can ensure an equitable and compassionate response, foster healthy grieving, and avoid flashpoints in the aftermath of a tragic loss. As a result, we strongly recommend presidents ask their VPSA these three questions to proactively clarify the president’s role and the institutional process in the event of a student death:

1. What is our formal, written institutional protocol when a student dies, and when was the last time we updated it?

Having a formal written protocol helps institutions stabilize the campus community; mobilize well-being resources to impacted students, faculty, and staff; and mitigate risks in the aftermath of a student death. However, most institutions’ protocols are either outdated or overlook key components of the campus healing process.

In most circumstances, presidents do not serve as the primary decision-maker when responding to student death, but they may be called upon to offer decision-making support to the student death response team, such as whether to cancel classes and how to handle memorials. The president may also be asked to send condolences to the deceased’s family, sign their name on student death notifications, or attend the family-sponsored memorial as appropriate. Presidents should also prepare to liaise with the institution’s counsel about any ongoing investigations, media inquiries, and potential litigation as needed.

EAB recommends that presidents review the death protocol with VPSAs on an annual basis to determine who serves on the student death response team, how to navigate the immediate aftermath, which updates may be necessary, and what steps your institution will take to facilitate healthy grieving and healing. During this conversation, it is essential presidents work with their VPSA to determine their role as president, identifying how and when they will be brought into the response process.

2. What can the cabinet do to support the VPSA and their team when a student death occurs?

After learning about a student death, cabinet leaders may have a variety of reactions. Some may want to take immediate action to support the deceased’s family and institutional community (e.g., send condolences, notify the campus, cancel classes), while others may prefer to step back and let student affairs staff take charge. When institutional representatives fail to coordinate and communicate with one another, they may overwhelm the family or come across to students, faculty, and staff as insensitive or unaware.

EAB recommends that presidents proactively work with the VPSA to set expectations about the cabinet’s role in the event of a student death. Having clear roles and expectations mitigates risks such as communications coming from multiple sources or being inconsistent. For example, there are several steps an institution can take to raise the cabinet’s awareness of their role in student death protocol:

  • Use EAB’s annual tabletop exercises to keep leaders up to date on their responsibilities in the event of a student death.
  • Include the protocol in onboarding for all new cabinet leaders.

Spending time proactively clarifying and regularly reviewing the expectations for cabinet leaders will ensure a cohesive and effective response effort. Check out EAB’s Navigating Student Death resources for more recommendations.

3. What steps are we taking on a regular basis to ensure faculty and staff are prepared to implement the student death protocol?

Faculty and staff are well-positioned to identify students in need of individualized support and to connect them to resources. However, faculty and staff are not typically equipped with the tools to support students through grieving and healing.

EAB recommends that presidents ensure their institution develops and distributes resources to help faculty and staff support healing efforts after a student death. For example, Stanford University has created materials that clarify pathways to support, provide talking points, and include guidance on what not to say in the moment. Create an institution-wide plan to communicate these materials each semester and as needed.

No president hopes a student death will happen at their institution. However, failure to prepare ahead of time can result in harm to the institutional community, flashpoints, and risks to student, faculty, and staff well-being.

EAB’s research on navigating student death helps institutions ensure their readiness to do this difficult, yet important work. When leaders proactively plan a response that centers community well-being and prioritizes consistency and timeliness, they mitigate risks to student, faculty, and staff safety, help the community return to normal routine as quickly as possible, and foster resilience in the aftermath of a tragic loss.

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