Education

Three Student Deaths in Five Months Add Up to a Tough Lesson at Colorado College

On October 7, anyone at Colorado College who picked up a copy of the student newspaper, The Catalyst, found nothing but blank pages, except for a letter from editors Emma McDermott and Zeke Lloyd. "The last two weeks have been emotionally draining and psychologically taxing," they wrote. "The administration provided students no campus-wide respite from academics."

On September 26, a sophomore died on the campus of the prestigious school, with the cause not confirmed. An athlete on the swim team, he was the third Colorado College student to die over a span of five months. On May 19, a student had killed himself a few days before graduation, the second confirmed suicide; he was a writer and editor for The Catalyst as well as a member of the rugby team. Just a few weeks earlier, a student had died off-campus, the first suicide. He was a music and religion major as well as a Bonner Fellow, part of a program in which students from underrepresented groups do meaningful work in the community.

After each of the deaths, students received an email from the administration expressing condolences and offering mental health resources. But classes continued, and the campus moved along.

"I remember it sort of being surreal; we got this email, but then everything kind of continued the next day,"  Veronica Gibson, a junior Art Studio major, says of the death in September. "I had some friends...their professors actually canceled class in relation to this, but it wasn’t a cohesive decision in any way. It was, again, some professors choosing to take steps in order to allow care for their students."

The blank issue of The Catalyst was designed to send a clear statement to the faculty and administrators at the small liberal arts college: Students needed a break after a particularly brutal few months.

What's happening at Colorado College is part of a startling trend of suicides at schools across the country. A National Library of Medicine report found that suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students; around 1,100 die by suicide each year. "There has been an uptick everywhere," notes Rochelle Dickey, CC's vice president for student life. "CC is not immune to that."

But there are some circumstances unique to Colorado College that could make students there particularly vulnerable. Students and alumni point to a lack of mental health resources; not enough BIPOC counselors; mental health issues created by the school's intense block plan, with students taking one class for three and a half weeks followed by just a two-and-a-half-day break; and ineffective approaches by the college in dealing with campus-wide distress after disturbing events.

Gibson describes the on-campus situation as a Ferris wheel spinning so fast that people are starting to fly off.
click to enlarge
Colorado College has been rocked by three student deaths.
Wikipedia/Jeffrey Beal
Colorado College may be small, but it's mighty. It has an acceptance rate of 13.6 percent, the second lowest in the state, right behind the United States Air Force Academy. It's the most expensive in Colorado, with an average in-state attendance cost of $83,000 to $86,000. About 67.2 percent of the 2,425 undergraduates this year are white, 25.6 percent are BIPOC, and 6.1 percent are international.

One of Colorado College's draws is its unique block plan. Rather than taking multiple classes each semester, as at most colleges and universities, students here take one class for three and a half weeks beginning on a Monday with a break between each block. Classes usually meet from 9 a.m. to noon every day, with labs in the afternoon for some. There are four blocks per semester and optional half blocks in the winter and summer sessions.

The school touts this schedule as key to its academic rigor; the words "block plan" were spoken countless times this past May at graduation ceremonies as the school celebrated the success of its students. Colorado College adopted the plan in 1970; only a handful of other colleges around the country use a similar schedule.

While many students enrolled at CC for the block plan, they say they didn't realize just how strenuous it would be. “I feel like the block plan itself is really exhausting," says LaNiah Moon, a recent Colorado College alumnus. While three hours of class each day may not seem so bad from the outside, students point out that missing just two days of classes is the equivalent of missing six hours of material, making it nearly impossible to catch up on all the hours of lost content. "I don’t think that anything could have prepared me for how rigorous the block plan is," Moon says. "There’s really no room for error or for mistakes, because how are you supposed to keep up with the course load if you’re not present in class?"

Ronak Patel, a senior majoring in economics and computer science, echoes this sentiment. "I think the main problem is there's just no support for anybody struggling through the block plan," Patel says. "It’s so fast-paced that if you’re sick or you’re mentally unwell for even a day, you’ll miss so much."

"Our students are covering a week's worth of work in one day of class," Dickey acknowledges. "It’s strenuous."

"Our students are covering a week's worth of work in one day of class. It’s strenuous."

tweet this
She doesn't see automatically giving a day off as a solution. Since the college must meet a certain number of contact hours, she notes that too many days off could put accreditation at risk. "That is up to faculty to determine how they might be able to offer some type of mental health break or a day off of classes," she suggests.

But the administration might also come up with a change to the plan that could better accommodate students' lifestyles and needs. The school is now working on something called Project 2024, an effort led by CC professor Susan Ashley that's looking at ways the school can improve by 2024. Some ideas to change the block plan include holding classes in the afternoon rather than a strict 9 a.m.-to-noon schedule, or combining two classes into a seven-and-a-half-week block so that students have more of an interdisciplinary experience.

"It was designed in 1969; I’m sure it’s not always going to be the same block plan," says Dickey. "It's got to keep pace with the lives of our students. The lives of our students in 2022 are nothing like the lives of our students in 1969 or 1970."

The lives of students changed dramatically in the spring of 2020. As COVID-19 closed institutions across the country, Colorado College shuttered and moved education online.

Both online and hybrid classes returned for the 2020-21 school year, and that spring the administration opted to replace spring break with a regular block break, which is just two and a half days. The Colorado College Student Government Association responded by asking for a mental health day, but the administration rejected that.

On the first Monday of each block, there is usually a speaker. The speaker slated for March 28 this year canceled, and the Academic Events Committee, a group of CC faculty and staff members, chose not to schedule a replacement, but instead opted for a 45-minute break in which students were encouraged to stay away from email and focus on their mental health.

But students still wanted a full mental health day, and the CCSGA took up their cause. "CCSGA was looking into pausing and doing a mental health day to give students time to relax and catch up on stuff," says Al Lo, CCSGA vice president of student life. "It’s like an uphill battle with the administration. Every time we advocate for it, it’s always being dismissed. Any time they acknowledge it, it gets put on the back burner." School administrators rejected the request, saying that the missed classroom time would just add more stress for some students.

After that, recalls Jordan Bates, a senior environmental chemistry major, students started organizing. "We created a petition," he recalls. "We wanted one mental health day for every student every block, no questions asked."

"We wanted one mental health day for every student every block, no questions asked."

tweet this
After the third student died this fall, that petition was transformed into "Mental Health Day Demands," which asks the dean of the faculty, the faculty executive committee and the administration to implement a series of changes.

From the faculty, the petition demands a written policy allowing students to take one mental health day per block without penalty, calls for professors to end campus programming and communication with students at 3 p.m. and no assignments after that time; asks for more boundaries between school and personal life for students; and requests that faculty work with CC's student government to develop an anonymous reporting line for students to communicate that professors have created unsafe or uncomfortable classroom environments.

From the college administration, the petition demands that staff be adequately compensated; asks that a grant for Pell-eligible students pursuing science, technology, engineering and mathematics be created so that they are compensated for requirements outside of the typical 9 a.m.-to-noon course; calls for the administration to commit to hiring more BIPOC staff at the counseling center; requests that more space be devoted to housing; and stipulates that the administration stop making promises it cannot keep.

Nearly 500 people have signed the petition so far; organizers also created an Instagram account titled "CCinstitutionalchangenow" to bolster the petition's demands.

This isn't the first time that students have advocated for mental health changes at Colorado College.

According to Heather Horton, CC's senior director of Student Health and Wellbeing, a few of the health resources currently on campus came into being as a result of such advocacy. "In 2004, student activism led to the creation of a campus task force, out of which the position of SARC [Sexual Assault Response Coordinator] was created, as well as the creation of a sexual-misconduct policy; that policy has been revised and is now our Nondiscrimination and Anti-Harassment Policy and Procedures, in combination with the campus Title IX Sexual Harassment Grievance Procedures," Horton says. The campus hired the first SARC in 2005.

In the 2011-2012 academic year, the CCSGA conducted a survey regarding the mental health of students, asking about their experiences, what sort of programs they might want developed, and how aware they are of mental health issues and resources on campus. That student engagement was part of what spurred the creation of the Wellness Resource Center, which focuses on sexual-assault response and prevention, as well as mental health and substance-use education, according to Horton.

"To me, it feels like this larger trend of essential mental health infrastructure and care only exists because of student activism and students not just doing the emotional labor and work that comes with all of this, but also in a block," Gibson says.

Some members of the CC faculty recently adopted their own wellness pledge that can be adapted by departments and programs. It begins with a statement: "As an educator who is committed to anti-racist, accessible, and critical pedagogy, I pledge to center our holistic selves and our collective wellbeing (including but not limited to our physical wellness and mental health) as a core value and learning outcome of this course." Faculty members who sign the pledge are committing to some of the measures requested by the petition, including not requiring documentation for a student's absence at least one day during every block, scheduling assignment deadlines only during the work week, and slating one pre-determined day in the syllabus as "a wellness day with no readings, deadlines or course-related tasks."

Colorado College is working with outside experts to secure a Healthy Minds designation for the campus. A creation of the Colorado Department of Higher Education, the designation indicates that an institution is committed to supporting the mental well-being of its staff and students. So far, ten institutes of higher learning in the state have achieved it; the University of Colorado Denver was the most recent.

In order for a college or university to earn the designation, it must meet the Healthy Minds Checklist, which includes such things as putting mental health information on the back of student IDs and syllabi, holding an awareness event each year, offering prevention programs, and providing access to online mental health support.

The goals are to "emphasize prevention and self-care, provide resources for substance use disorders and recovery, ensure culturally competent and accessible services, elevate student voices and increase accessible information for student services," according to the state education department.

Colorado College has also been working with the El Paso County Collaborative for Suicide Prevention, an organization whose goal is to reduce suicides in the county 20 percent by 2024, to see if there are parts of the program that could be implemented at CC.

Colorado College currently has eight counselors, five of them BIPOC and two bilingual. The school has four psychologists and a nurse practitioner as well, Dickey notes. Some of the counselors are part-time, however, so CC is looking at how it can increase hours. BIPOC students, in particular, say they would appreciate more time with counselors; some alumni say that there was a shortage of BIPOC counselors in the past, and current students say they've experienced long wait times for a BIPOC counselor.

The school also has a 24/7 counseling line and a Sexual Assault Response Coordinator on call, though some students say they don't feel one coordinator is enough.

"It’s also important to note that counseling is just one part of the picture," Dickey says. "A lot of times when we think about mental health and wellness, we jump to, 'Everybody needs clinical intervention.' What are the basic things to be a well person? Are we eating right? Are we taking time for ourselves during the day? All of these things scaffold on each other."

As Colorado College grapples with three student deaths in five months, the school is coming up with a system for handling such tragic events. "What we’re working on right now is even creating a further set of protocols that we can also share with the campus in terms of when communications go out," Dickey says. "Who are the people that are first on site to respond, particularly when there’s been a student death? That’s part of better communication; that’s something we really need to do a better job of, is having better communication."

Students would attest to that. Many have criticized the administration for minimizing information about student deaths when memorials are called for.

According to Dickey, the school follows certain guidelines to ensure that discussions surrounding student deaths do not glorify suicide. Those guidelines call for communicating with the campus as soon as possible and not always mentioning that a student died from suicide.

But some students feel the administration's actions after a death aren't enough, which is what inspired the blank edition of The Catalyst. "I thought that was a powerful message," Dickey says.

Along with the blank paper, editors of The Catalyst published a tribute edition to their colleague who had committed suicide on May 19. It commemorated his life and time at CC, including his work on The Catalyst and his impact on the community.

Friends, teammates and co-workers shared poems, stories, memories and pictures. The edition was a collective moment of grief for those who knew and loved the student, and was intended for distribution at a rugby game that day.

But first, mental health professionals and CC communications managers reached out to the Catalyst editors.

"The edition of The Catalyst that might have been about our student that we lost in May was for a select group of students; it was not widely publicized on campus, and students at the student newspaper did have conversations with our VP for strategic communication [and] with our mental health professionals to say, 'How can we figure out how to honor our students without again going against best practices of 'You cannot glorify a suicide'?" Dickey recalls. "Honestly, there’s not always points of agreement."

There's a fine line between honoring students who passed and glorifying suicide, she adds: "When we do gatherings, we get to be honest and...let people bring their authentic selves and their emotions — 'I’m angry, I'm sad, I'm frustrated, I'm confused' — but we do not memorialize. You have to be very careful memorializing, because students who are also struggling with mental health can see that as a glorification of suicide."

"Students who are also struggling with mental health can see that as a glorification of suicide."

tweet this
On the same day that The Catalyst published the blank paper and distributed the memorial issue, someone disturbed a hockey game at Ed Robson Arena. "Multiple observers who witnessed the incident up close reported that the protester had a small pair of scissors in their hand that they were using to try and pierce their neck," The Catalyst later reported.

The protester was not a CC student. After he was escorted out of the arena and to Memorial Hospital, the game continued. Some students saw that as another example of the school going about business as usual, without mental health breaks. "CC once again failed to handle a distressing situation with [the] care their students are demanding," said one Instagram post.

President L. Song Richardson sent an email to the campus the next morning. "The events of last night were traumatic to a community already coping with tragedy," she wrote. "I know from my meetings with students and from the legitimate concerns being raised across campus that we need to do better for the health of our whole community. I commit to doing all that I can to examine how we do that."

On November 4, members of a newly formalized group, the Colorado Student Coalition for Institutional Change, showed up at the Colorado College Board of Trustees Meeting, many of them wearing black, to bring attention to the fact that many of the improvements at the school had been pushed by minority students, who were often not the face of these movements but were the ones most affected by what's going on.

While only one of the three students who died over the last five months was a person of color, BIPOC students continue to push hard for changes that could help the entire campus.

"I think that what seems very clear to me is that there is this very clear historical pattern of the burden of care falling on oftentimes marginalized BIPOC students who are doing most of this work and also maybe suffering the most and hurting the most," Gibson says. "It’s really exhausting. It’s a heavy weight to bear in this world.”
KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Katrina Leibee, a recent graduate of Colorado State University, is an editorial fellow at Westword, covering politics, business and culture.
Contact: Katrina Leibee

Latest Stories