University to review response to student deaths

GW is creating a commission to investigate how effectively the University has responded to five student deaths following the suicide of freshman Hasan Hussain Sunday.

Dean of Students Linda Donnels is organizing the panel in response to the deaths of four undergraduates and a law student in the past five months.

The commission will look at GW’s procedures for dealing with student deaths and examine whether the University has allocated adequate resources toward counseling services and suicide prevention programs.

“We want to do the best we can do to deal with this,” Donnels said.

The panel will be comprised of students, staff and faculty, said Donnels, who added that the selection process would begin “shortly.” She was unsure how many people would sit on the panel.

“We would have findings ready for implementation by the next academic year,” she said.

The creation of the commission would pose no extra cost to GW, Donnels said. She noted, however, that any changes in the University’s “crisis response” policy may cause an increase in spending.

GW President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said he supports the commission’s creation.

“If you have something happen you say to yourself, ‘Are we doing everything we can possibly do?'” said Trachtenberg, who added that in his recent memory, GW has not experienced the amount of loss it has seen this year.

“It’s clearly bigger than us,” he added.

As the University prepares to assess its response to student deaths, city officials ruled this week that Hussain’s 80-foot fall from a Hall on Virgina Avenue balcony was intentional. Metropolitan Police are still trying to determine why the 19-year-old Jacksonville, Fla., native took his own life.

“We’re just looking at all the physical evidence and conducting interviews,” said Douglas Carlson, a detective in MPD’s violent crimes unit and lead investigator in Hussain’s death.

Carlson added that MPD had interviewed several students who witnessed Hussain’s death, but declined to name them.

Adrian Lavallee, general counsel for the D.C. Medical Examiner’s Office, said an autopsy was conducted on Hussain’s body Monday morning.

This week, staff members from the University Counseling Center have been meeting with students in HOVA. They added that the center has seen a higher number of students come to the its regular office hours.

Robert Wilson, the center’s assistant director for educational services said that the counseling center actively works to prevent suicide and also trains residence hall community facilitators to identify possible warning signs of suicide.

“We provide information on how to identify, intervene and respond to cases of suicidality,” he said.

Wilson said that specific information the counseling center had on Hussain could not be released, but added that the center has prevented student suicides in the past.

Freshman Erica Sugarman, who lived one floor below Hussain, said his death came as a shock to her.

“I never would have expected it,” said Sugarman, who said Hussain would always greet her as they crossed paths on campus.

At a vigil Monday night, University of Maryland freshman Barrett Mooney, who knew Hussain since grade school, said that he saw his friend earlier this year and that he “seemed generally happy.”

University officials are also investigating how Hussain was able to access his fourth-floor balcony facing the Watergate complex. A device prevents HOVA residents from opening their balcony doors more than six inches.

Tom Dwyer, managing director for GW Property Management, wrote in an e-mail that the University conducts health and safety inspections to ensure that residents have not tampered with their doors in order to gain access to their balconies.

But, noted Dwyer, “Persons determined to bypass and violate University policies, procedures and precautions may succeed in efforts to gain access where access is normally denied.”

Dwyer added that balcony access is restricted because of safety concerns and to hinder students from throwing objects onto the street or sidewalk. He offered no response when asked if GW would be making it more difficult for students to open their balcony.

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