GW officials likely to fund recommended counseling changes

Senior GW administration officials said cost would not be a factor in implementing the recommendations of a commission that investigated the University’s response to student deaths.

The commission, which met regularly over the summer in response to the death of five students last year, recently issued a final report but did not make it public. The Hatchet independently obtained a copy of the report last week. The 56-page document calls for more resources to be allotted to the counseling center and also recommends improvements in GW’s death response protocols.

Although he has yet to read the report, University President Stephen Joel Trachtenberg said the commission’s conclusions are a step in the right direction and that cost would not be an issue in meeting with the needs outlined in the report.

“Anything that has to do with safety and health has to be a high priority,” Trachtenberg said. “I appointed the commission because I thought this was an issue that needs to be researched.”

While the University is already facing across-the-board budget cuts, Louis Katz, GW’s executive vice president and treasurer, said the University will fund the commission’s recommended changes. He noted that GW always has more funding requests than it can handle.

“Life safety issues … we do not knowingly compromise on those. I put this issue in that area,” Katz said.

Robert Chernak, senior vice president for Student and Academic Support Services, said the University will take into close consideration the changes recommended by the commission.

Chernak’s department, which oversees the counseling center, made $640,000 in budget cuts this year. Officials said they are unsure how much the recommended changes would cost.

He added that Linda Donnels, GW’s dean of students, has already taken steps towards making the requested changes. At this point, the University has released no official time line or budget for implementing the recommendations.

In an interview last week, Donnels said she has already begun expanding the efforts of the counseling center, which conducts suicide prevention and grief response.

Trachtenberg said one of the main purposes of the commission, which was formed after the suicide of a GW freshman last spring, was to discover whether the University has been experiencing an abnormal number of student deaths.

“If you have 20,000 students, you know that you will have some tragedy,” he said. “Is five a lot? I don’t know the answer to that.”

According to the report, five deaths is just below GW’s average yearly number of 5.5. In the 2002-03 academic year, however, one student died.

Sophomore Christina Mueller, national liaison for the GW Suicide Prevention Action Network, said she is optimistic about the report and its findings.

“I think it looks really promising,” Mueller said. “The only thing we are concerned about is who is holding the school accountable.”

Mueller said she felt that the biggest change needed is the addition of a 24-hour crisis hot line for students contemplating suicide. While two of last year’s deaths and the death of a sophomore earlier this month were ruled suicides, an all-hours counseling number was not discussed in the report. Under the existing system, students can make an after-hours call to the University Police Department, which will dispatch a counselor.

“Kids are not going to want to call UPD and deal with possibly getting in trouble,” Mueller said.

GW-SPAN holds its meetings every Tuesday at 7:15 p.m. in the Marvin Center and is similar to campus suicide prevention groups across the nation.

A more proactive program, cited in the commission’s review of suicide prevention at colleges across the country, can be found at the University of Illinois. Paul Joffe, chair of Illinois’ suicide prevention program, said students are required to attend counseling sessions if they contemplate suicide.

“Every time a student attempts or threatens suicide, they have to go through four mandatory sessions (of counseling),” said Joffe, who added that students who do not comply with the program run the risk of expulsion.

“Two thousand students have gone through the program, and none have committed suicide after completing it,” Joffe said.

“We see suicide as an act of self-violence, and we are a community of non-violence,” he added.

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