Whyte studies U’s death response

The administrator has concern that the University isn’t adequately helping grieving students.

Blair Emerson

When University of Minnesota marching band member Robert Brau died in an August motorcycle accident, the 300-person band dedicated its entire 2014 season to his memory and School of Music students organized a memorial service.

Though the University responded to the marching band, Amelious Whyte, senior associate vice provost for advocacy and support, said he’s concerned that the school isn’t adequately reaching out to all of the students who are associated with a student who dies, especially if those affected aren’t involved with a large group, like the marching band.

He plans to spend the year evaluating the University’s current outreach efforts and how it acknowledges student deaths.

At least 25 University students died last year.

It can be challenging to locate all the students in need of support services like counseling and support groups, Whyte said.

When a student dies, University administrators use a database to gather information about him or her, like classes and grades. But Whyte said that database doesn’t necessarily include every group or club the student was involved in.

“We would have no way of knowing unless we hear things word-of-mouth,” Whyte said, “and that’s what happens.”

If a student was part of an athletics team, a band or a choir, it can be easier to locate the student’s friends because there’s a more established information system, he said. But smaller student groups and acquaintances are more difficult to locate.

Karen Lange, dean of students at the University of St. Thomas, also said colleges and universities should focus on students who had more informal relationships with the deceased student.

Lange, who is finishing her dissertation on how faith-based institutions respond to student deaths, said it’s important for a school to provide opportunities and places for all students in bereavement.

“That’s the most important piece — that students have an opportunity to grieve,” she said.

“That’s not necessarily part of a college student’s life.”

Whyte said he is also exploring respectful ways to make the students’ deaths more public to the University community, like by posting their names to social media or another website.

Making the death more public could help bring together more students wishing to grieve or remember the deceased, Whyte said, adding that he wants the University to provide more opportunities for people to mourn collectively.

Some of those who died last year were involved with large-scale groups, like fraternities and marching band, which offer group support.

When Whyte visited the Pi Kappa Alpha fraternity house a few weeks ago to observe the group grieving the death of one of its members, he noticed the group working together to get through the tragedy, he said.

“I could see the impact of the loss of somebody on the hundred or so people that were in the room,” he said, “and so thinking about all the other people that knew that student who died, who we weren’t able to bring together, who might be suffering just as much as the guys in the room, but we just don’t know about it.”

When the Office for Student Affairs receives notice of a student death, Whyte said, officials confirm the death and then contact the University Community Response Team. That group assesses the situation and determines next steps for action, like gathering student groups together.

The team responds to other traumatic events on campus, including missing people and natural disasters.

The names of deceased faculty and staff members and students are listed in University Senate meeting agendas.

Joe Walsh, a philosophy senior and the marching band’s drum major, said marching band staff and Scott Lipscomb, the School of Music’s interim director, acknowledged Brau’s death through an email, a memorial service and a page in the school’s magazine.

Paul Benson, a music education sophomore and member of the marching band, said Brau’s death seemed to be addressed largely within the marching band.

And although Whyte plans to look into ways to reach more potentially affected students, Walsh said the University’s response to Brau’s death was adequate.

“When I look at how the public has reacted to [Brau’s death], it’s fairly behind closed doors,” he said, adding that he wouldn’t necessarily want a more public acknowledgement.