By Arthur O’Sullivan
In writing this article, I intend, with the benefit of hindsight, to document and evaluate Binghamton University’s response to the student suicide of October 30, 2023. In doing so, I hope to give a guide for students who want to learn from and help prevent tragedy. This is not an easy article to write. Leaving aside the problem of tonal clash with this issue, there are a number of pitfalls that come with this subject.
The most obvious is insensitivity. I’m far from an expert on any issue that this article raises. Few people are, at least on this campus. As such, I draw heavily on the experience of others to understand what happened, the broader context of this incident, and what the “proper” response is. As such, I ask for your grace and goodwill. If you believe that I’ve made an error: misrepresented something, missed important information, or even just disagree, please let me know. (My email, as ever, is firstname.lastname@example.org).
Additionally, it’s all too easy to project one’s own issues, biases, pet-causes et cetera onto an event like this: student disengagement, stress-culture, poor administration, lack of nutrition on campus, whatever! If it exists, anyone can find some way to connect it to this death on campus, blaming that specific thing above all else. This elides the fact that we do not know—and indeed can’t know—what factors drive any one individual to suicide. You can never simply project trends onto just one person. As such, I will only ask “What happened?” and not “How did it happen?” The only “how” questions I will ask are for the responses of students, professors, and administrators: How did they respond, and how well did it work?
Finally, it’s easy to be unfair to others—especially those in authority—when tragedy strikes. In the wake of that bleak Monday morning, I noticed too many students jumping on bandwagons of hate or worship for campus authorities. Some picked apart every word in the B-ALERT and B-Line messages, excoriating them for being unhelpful and vague, but also not being released earlier; others clung to every statement made by a man in authority, refusing to entertain any idea that things could have been mishandled. Neither position is fair. In truth, our professors and administrators are almost always just as confused and unsure as you and I are. It’s incumbent on us all to be measured in our criticism, and judicious in our praise. Otherwise, no human involved can learn from that week.
With this long preamble out of the way, we can now consider the heart of the matter: what happened, how did we respond, and what must we do next?
What happened on the week of October 30, 2023
At 8:56 A.M., students received a cryptic B-ALERT reading “Campus Police are actively investigating an incident that occurred outside the Bartle Library tower. There is no danger to the campus or community.”
At 9:23 A.M., a second B-ALERT announced the cancellation of all classes that day, due to the investigation.
At 10:46 A.M., just under two hours after the first announcement, the investigation at Bartle Library Tower was declared over, and the scene cleared.
At 2:35 P.M., B.U. President Harvey Stenger announced in a B-Line News Addition that an unnamed student was found dead at the base of the Library Tower, with no evidence of criminal activity. He shared the campus’ many resources for mental health, crisis management, and religious support.
At 4:51 P.M., the Student Association sent out a similar message.
At 7:00 P.M., a vigil organized by the Thurgood Marshall Pre-Law Society saw hundreds of students gather in silence in honor of the unknown deceased. Flowers, candles, and leaflets were passed out to those in attendance. Two memorials were set up: one on the Spine, at the statue near the library tower; the other on the Peace Quad, beneath a tree on the path.
The next day, at 7:48 A.M., President Stenger sent out a message detailing his insomnia, his reasons for not canceling Tuesday classes, and a proposal for faculty to make class optional and not teach any new material.
Natalia Malcevic, a sophomore majoring in computer science from Niskayuna, was the student “discovered deceased” at the base of Bartle Library Tower. All evidence indicates suicide. The rest of this article will review the events listed, singling out items for praise and criticism, and suggestions for reform and repair.
On Administrative Responses
The first word that comes to mind is “unprepared.” It remains unclear to me when the body was discovered. The first B-ALERT was sent at 8:56 A.M., by which point morning classes had long-since begun. How long was the interval between the body’s discovery and the first B–ALERT? We know the interval between that and the cancellation of classes: 27 minutes. This would mean that at bare minimum half an hour, though more likely 45 minutes to an hour had passed between discovery of a body and cancellation of classes. The Pipe Dream Editorial Board considers this unacceptable, and I’m inclined to agree. Whatever administrative obstacle prevents classes from being canceled immediately after a student is found dead must be removed, especially when the body lies on a major artery of campus traffic This is not the first suicide to hit Binghamton’s campus. Perhaps it’s ghoulish to have contingencies for this, but it’s better than making it up as one goes. This was the worst aspect of the response.
President Stenger’s personal response came at 2:35 P.M., and I can not fault him for taking his time. The email had to be comprehensive, while also protecting the deceased’s privacy, while also providing resources and explaining their function. Stenger pulled it off well. This was by far the best aspect of the administration’s response.
Yet Stenger’s following message, sent at 7:48 A.M., was not as skillful. In deciding to “not make a decision” on whether to cancel classes or not, he threw students and professors alike into confusion. The directive to “not teach any new material” was not only logistically impossible for many classes, but it likewise gave students an “out” to either disengage with or fight the professor: the last thing we needed.
There was a better solution which only slightly tweaks the President’s “proposal”: leave cancellation of classes to the discretion of professors, direct them not to take attendance, and record class and allow participants on Zoom. This allows professors and students to take the week at their own pace, without unnecessary administrative stress.
I hold no ill-will or incredulous blame for these mistakes. Some of the response was well-handled, and other parts not. It’s near-impossible to respond “well” to a tragedy like this, but key failures in their messaging and timing must be a wake-up call for B.U. administrators: not only must they work to prevent another incident like this, but they must also be more prepared for the worst.
Yet the administration’s response is only half of the story. The response of students and their organizations can be more important than any administrative action.
On Student Responses
From before the first B-ALERT, hundreds of groupchats were buzzing with confusion, fear, and myriad other emotions. Among them were certainly some tasteless jokes and speculation (not to mention one weirdo on Reddit asking for “footage”), but most communications which I had seen moderated themselves well: they stayed respectful of others’ privacy, were quick to share resources and prayers, and overall kept a lid on unnecessary trouble.
Later, I was especially impressed with the Thurgood Marshall Pre-Law Society’s rapid organization of that night’s vigil. Under the starless night, students experienced a profound unity in silence as each laid flowers, candles, and prayers at the memorial; the continued reverence that the campus keeps for the two memorials is a testament to humanity.
Yet the student response is not faultless. I’ve already discussed the tasteless jokes and creeps asking for footage, but there were also those who blasted Harvey Stenger for not condemning Israel nor Palestine in his other B-ALERTs. Likewise, others mindlessly embraced his confusing directive, blasting certain professors I know for daring to teach on Tuesday. Yet despite these few bad individual responses, students still overall responded with compassion and grace beyond expectation. Yet the shadow of unintended consequences may yet lie behind a well-intentioned response, which brings me to the most difficult section of this article.
“Contagious” (also known as “copycat”) suicide-risk is a well-documented phenomenon. According to a report for the National Research Council, elevated risk of a “copycat” suicide appears to be influenced by geographical proximity to the deceased, social relations with the deceased—especially among adolescents, and irresponsible media coverage of the suicide.
This leads me to ask: Did we do this wrong? If we pay attention to suicide, will it only put people at more risk? Should I not have written this article at all?
The only alternative, as I see it, is to keep suicide too taboo to discuss (until it gets too big to ignore). UNC Chapel Hill did that… without great success. In truth, it’s unconscionable to not discuss tragedy. Sure, suicide may be more salient to some, but wouldn’t others feel isolated? It seems like a lose-lose situation.
What comes next? How can students help?
I can’t cut these Gordian knots alone, but I don’t have to. I reached out to authorities on campus to learn what their suicide-prevention plans were, and how a student could help. Specifically, I asked the Office of the President of B.U., the Student Association, and the Clinical Director of the University Counseling Center, Dr. Mark Rice.
Of the three, only Dr. Rice responded in time for publication. He detailed that the UCC’s suicide prevention plan is guided by the Jed Foundation, which provides training for identifying suicidal behavior, developing resilience, and providing help, both in crisis and in general. He explained the UCC’s “postvention” approach to inhibiting suicide contagion, which involves “mobilizing support resources, providing appropriate communications, and gradually getting back to routines while monitoring those who might be at higher risk.” Most importantly, he notes that the UCC still has available appointments, and that they are an essential part of both suicide prevention and “postvention.” Finally, he provided a number of phone numbers for urgent contacts, found below this article.
This publication and others have documented structural problems with the UCC. Reports maintain that it’s ill-equipped for long-term care, especially for those with major mental illness. Still, none of the critiques I’ve read complain about the quality of short-term crisis care. So if you’re really in danger, don’t let these critiques stop you from seeking help.
A full treatment of mental health and its treatment on campus—both by UCC and administration—is beyond the scope of this article. Yet while it’s important and necessary to call for reforms and repairs to these institutions, it’s also incumbent on us to work with them to prevent future tragedies.
Dr. Rice has many suggestions for students who want to help: support one another, learn life skills and self-care, join organizations, and, most importantly, refer people in crisis to professional help. How can you tell who’s in crisis, and where do you refer them? SUNY provides free training at suny.edu/mental-health. Look up “QPR,” (Question, Persuade, and Refer). It’s only an hour, and is a concrete action for students to take against campus suicide.
My deep thanks to Dr. Mark Rice for his quick response and concrete advice. Without him, this article would be impossible.