The Critical Incident

15 May 2017

Whitley College’s Critical Incident Form succinctly and clearly advises anyone who steps foot onto college grounds how to act in the case of a traumatic event.

The document readily provides examples of potential situations such as natural disasters, fires, explosions, intruders and attacks. According to Deputy Warden of Whitley College, Genevieve Leach, however, the worst critical incident is when a student passes away.

In 2008, Whitley College – which houses 130 students – was deeply affected by the unexpected death of a student on college grounds. During this period, Ms Leach was the Welfare Coordinator at University College. She is now responsible for Pastoral Care in her position at Whitley.

  “In the event of a student passing away there is an enormous responsibility to make sure people are informed,” she said.

Ms Leach said students received updates from the Warden, Margie Welsford, during dinner – a time when the majority of students are present.

Ms Leach asserted that, for the staff at Whitley, paying attention to how students chose to grieve was extremely important.

“Grief is individual. You’ve got to gauge where people are at and what they want,” she said.

The form also directs that those closest to the deceased should be the first to be notified. Ms Leach said that Heads of Colleges should know which students belong to whose friendship groups.

As well as providing information regarding how to react immediately and in the two to three days following, the form advises an ongoing follow-up plan.

Ms Welsford, who has extensive psychological training in grief and counselling, decided that the deceased student’s room would serve as a place of quiet.

The College installed a fish tank and the room was open to all students and was frequently used in the year following the
student’s passing.

However, Whitley’s Critical Incident policy is not one that is consistent among colleges – there is no single overarching procedure. Ms Leach noted that whilst Colleges collaborate in regards to sport, academic programs and fair treatment, every college is different in how it handles the death of a student.

Medley Hall is a department of the University and, as such, is subject to their policies and procedures. Following the death of a student at Medley last November, Principal Phillippa Connelly commented that, although there are University guidelines and procedures in place, her response was mostly intuitive.

“There are the University’s guidelines but you just go in…do the things you do as a human being for another human being.”

Like Ms Leach, Ms Connelly wanted to ensure that students were informed and supported. After she and Medley staff had knocked on every student’s door, they then addressed all 59 members of Medley’s student body.

They spoke to everybody, and then to those who were deeply affected. Ms Connelly emphasised the importance of maintaining privacy and information, given the uncertain and intimate nature of the event.

“This was a sudden and unexpected death, it was of immediate importance to avoid misinformation and speculation and to control the flow of information until the student’s family members had been informed,” she said.

Students were also asked not to communicate any information via social media. Members of the Wellbeing Team promptly arrived including the University of Melbourne’s Wellbeing Associate Director, Daniel Persaud, who Ms Connelly praised for his involvement.

“He came immediately and was readily available for students,” she said. She also said that other College heads were “tremendously helpful” in offering assistance to a bereaved Medley Hall.

As well as receiving support from the Principal, her staff and the Wellbeing Team, students also provided support for one another.

Ex-Medley Hall student, Wunambi Connor, reflected on the profound shock experienced by students upon learning of their fellow student’s passing.

“Because of the uncertainty of how [the student] passed, people wanted someone or something to blame,” he said.

He said that students continually checked in with each other.

“We’d say, ‘everyone we’re going to sit and watch a movie’ and that’s what happened in the weeks following,” he said.

Connor said that students made sure to privately notify former students of Medley Hall that were close to the deceased.

At times, however, those on the outside of college communities are left unable to participate in the collective greiving process. One former student who had resided at the college the previous year said that she was informed online.

“It was such a shock…I was on holiday in Thailand and my friend messaged me on Facebook.” The student and the rest of her cohort that attended Medley Hall in 2015 received a formal email in the following days.

A spokesperson for the University said there are support materials and services aimed at timely reporting to enable the University to assess the circumstances and provide responses based on appropriate intervention and support.

“The Wellbeing Team leads the University’s response in conjunction with the wishes and feelings of the family, while also working with the relevant academic department,” they said.

A tutor at the University, Anita*, found herself frustrated when staff at the University neglected to tell her that her student had passed away.

Instead, she was informed by another student who happened to be aware of a bond shared between the deceased and their former tutor. Anita was incredibly grateful for the student who had passed on the information.

“She had the wisdom and ability to understand how it mattered to me,” she said. “It was really distressing that I wouldn’t have found out.”

She described a sense of isolation, having been informed by students who were also mourning.

“I couldn’t get them to sit in my office for 10 hours and talk about the student because I knew they were distressed themselves,” she said.

Anita found herself informing her superiors and Head of School about the deceased student. Dismayed by the lack of system or procedure in place, the tutor also emailed the classmates of the deceased student. The students were then able to write to their former tutor to offer reflections and reactions and discuss their memories of their classmate.

Anita said that one of her colleagues who had also taught the deceased student held a gathering to commemorate the student.

“[It was] her completely personal non-mandated response to the need to mark a tragedy like this,” she said. Anita was also able to watch the student’s funeral via live stream.

According to the Universtiy spokesperson, the University employs particular practices when providing support for staff and students affected by a fatality.

“Internal operating practice guidelines specifically address the required counselling and psychological support following any fatality,” a spokesperson said.

Although this does include counselling services, Anita felt the initial free services were not sufficient in the aftermath.

“It was a bureaucratic response to human tragedy,” she said.

In these events, privacy is also of concern, with some communitites aiming to protect students from the mainstream media. In 2014, Trinity College student, Joshua Hardy, died in the CBD. The case subsequently received widespread media coverage. Sarah Lawrie, Head of Marketing, Events and Communication at Trinity College reflected on the grief following the student’s passing.

“The Joshua Hardy case had a wide spread effect across the College, not only with our students but also our staff. It was a terrible case.”

Ms Lawrie declined to give any further comment.

As institutions, the University of Melbourne and its colleges have a responsibility to ensure that policies are accessible and pragmatic in any event. In the case of the death of a student, it seems clear that the policies implemented by colleges and the University cannot totally account for the enduring and visceral response individuals experience when reacting to the loss of life.

Principal of Medley Hall, Ms Connelly, acknowledged the residual intimate effects of the passing of a student.

“There are administrative consequences to do with procedure and policy, but it is ultimately deeply personal…it reverberates, it goes on, a person died and that person mattered.”

* Names have been changed to protect sources.

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