By Brooke Schultz
Washington College administration drew sharp criticism from many students after their response to the death of a student.
Freshman Royce Foreman died in the early afternoon Tuesday, April 3 after he was medevaced to a Delaware hospital’s ICU on Friday, March 30. According to police, Foreman’s death was a suicide.
Although some of Foreman’s friends were notified of his condition on Friday morning, and his “Stop Kiss” crew and castmates were brought in for counseling with Eastern Shore Crisis Response & Resource Helpline on Tuesday at 4 p.m., the College did not send out an official statement until 5:54 p.m. Tuesday.
In an interview with The Elm last Tuesday morning, President Kurt Landgraf explained that the College follows a protocol for situations like these.
“We have to be very respectful now,” he said. “We have to respect the wishes of the family… We have a protocol in place and at the appropriate time and place, we will put it into place. It’s a very, very sad thing for the College community, and the family. It’s everybody’s nightmare.”
“We’re really focused on the family and their situation. There is no rush for this,” said Rolando Irizarry, vice president for College Relations and Marketing.
On Sunday, Landgraf said that, looking back, he wishes that he could change aspects to how the College responded, but said it was not through apathy or an attempt to cover up what happened that caused this response.
“The College is bound by legal requirements; we’re also bound by the requirements of decency. We have to really carefully respect the parents, family, and not do anything to make this harder or more painful on them. At the same time, we don’t want to make this harder or more painful on any student who is here, or any faculty member who is here,” he said. “Everybody tried to do the right thing. Whether that, when we look at this going forward, was the most appropriate thing we could have done—those are two different issues.”
The first formal notice came on Tuesday, April 3 in a message to faculty. Sarah Feyerherm, vice president of Student Affairs and dean of students, notified faculty at 12:25 p.m. that a student had had a “medical emergency.” She said, if necessary, faculty should help students contact Health and Counseling Services and said that any student who would like to contact a professional after hours or over the weekend should call Public Safety. She also provided the phone number for the Mobile Crisis Response Team.
Feyerherm concluded the email by stating that “we are working intentionally with students, faculty, and staff who are close to the student, providing them additional support. When more information is available that is appropriate to share with the broader community, rest assured that we will do that.”
That same day, the cast and crew of “Stop Kiss” received an email that said at a 4 p.m. meeting they would be updated and a counselor would be available.
When the students got there, several members from the Mobile Crisis Response Team from the Eastern Shore Crisis Response & Resource Helpline were present.
“We didn’t even know [they] would be there,” said senior Olivia Libowitz. “Even if we were told they were going to be there, we got no indication that we were going to be asked questions about our feelings. Counselor available implies stay after the meeting if you need to talk to somebody, it does not imply we’re about to be in a group therapy session and people are going to ask you stuff.”
Libowitz said that it felt like the situation could have been better communicated and was mishandled.
“We were just so unprepared,” she said. “It got to that place where they started asking more questions—’How did you feel? What were you doing?’…they wouldn’t stop. The only question we were able to cut them off was, ‘Hindsight’s 20/20. What would you do if you could go back now?’ It was absurd….I know they [the College] were trying to help, but I feel like somebody should have stopped them at that point.”
Libowitz said that most of the cast and crew was still in shock, and some of them had only found out less than an hour before the meeting.
“We were all so angry after it,” she said.
She said that one student, an understudy in the production, didn’t receive any of the emails for the meeting. “It felt impersonal. It felt like people were just checking off, ‘OK, this group’s done, this group’s…’ without actually looking into what had gone on,” she said.
She said that she sent her concerns to Health and Counseling and hasn’t heard back.
The following day, on Wednesday, April 4, senior Richie Torres and other students organized a moment of silence, a walk to Gibson Center for the Arts, and the opportunity for students to share stories and positivity about Foreman. He said that he was told by administrators that it was too soon, and that the event would “glorify suicide.”
“We saw the response of administration. When we did the whole Remembering Royce [event], it was such a positive experience,” he said. “[An administrator] wanted me to shut it down.”
But when Renee Foreman, Royce’s mother, asked if the crowd that gathered to show their support if they were going to walk to the theater, the administration present didn’t stop it.
“It was an awesome moment to see everyone come together,” he said.
That night, when the students held their own candlelight vigil, they removed all social media mentions out of fear the College would shut it down, Libowitz said.
Though students have expressed anger, Torres said that he and many others are trying to come at this situation proactively.
“If we burn our bridges, we get nowhere,” he said.
Sophomore Paris Mercier was also trying to stay positive, she said. She helped organize both the walk and the candlelight vigil last Wednesday. She said she was disappointed in the way administration originally approached the news of Foreman’s death.
“Do I think that they could’ve done better? Absolutely. Do I think that they had a tough situation in front of them and didn’t realize what effect they would have when doing so? Yes,” she said. “I’ve lost focus of the anger for the admin and turned it into making sure that I use my anger for good.”
She plans on channeling that into rebooting Active Minds program for WC.
“I believe it will do a great benefit to this campus,” she said.
Libowitz, Torres, and four other students arranged a time to meet with Landgraf to discuss the College’s handling of the situation.
Libowitz said Landgraf’s response time was “really good.” Within a half an hour of asking to speak with him, the meeting was scheduled for Friday.
Libowitz and four freshmen met with him and Allison Banks, Landgraf’s executive assistant, who took notes through the meeting. Torres was unable to attend.
“There was sort of two things that people were there for,” she said. “The freshmen were…the people…there to speak up for Royce and how this situation was handled and the flaws in the handling and the delicacy of this particular tragedy. I was there…to sort of look at the whole thing from a bird’s eye view and look at the state the school is in.”
In the two-and-a-half hour long, uninterrupted meeting, she said they discussed several points: the response of Health and Counseling Services, the Mobile Crisis Hotline, the Department of Public Safety, and the student body’s perception of what has been going on.
She said that they expressed the feeling that the College was pushing things under rugs and that students were angry.
“Transparency was really lacking….We can acknowledge that you lacked a little tact in that [the response] without accusing you of malicious intent,” she said.
Landgraf said that he knows it took a lot of courage for the students to come speak while they’re grieving.
“I was remarkably impressed by how the students supported each other. I thought it was the nicest, warmest, kindest thing,” he said. “And, quite frankly, some of those people sitting here are heroes. They are. They did amazing things. Hero is a strong word; I mean it. They represent the best we have to offer.”
After this initial meeting, Landgraf and this group agreed to meet again to further discuss points they had brought up.
Landgraf said he is willing to meet with anyone who has concerns about this situation.
As a senior, Libowitz said that this feels like a systemic issue, which she articulated at the meeting, she said.
“I do have to point out that this is something going on, that kids are killing themselves here a lot,” she said. “And if it’s happening at every school, then it’s happening at every school. But we can’t control what’s happening at every school. We can only try to work on what’s happening at WC.”
Torres echoed her sentiments. “We aren’t another school. We aren’t a statistic. We’re WC. When we’re given a tour here, we’re told that we’re going to be individualized, that everything is going to be about us. Mental health should be included in that. Our mental health should be cared for. Stop comparing us to other schools because we can stop this….The fact that we’re the top 16th happiest school according to Princeton Review, I don’t know how that’s measured and I don’t know how that came to be, but this is a problem we have to address.
“This school has given me a lot of things,” he continued. “I will forever be grateful for the phenomenal education I have. I feel like I have learned so much and I’ve become extremely educated from this institution. I have amazing friends as a support system. But mental health here has to be taken seriously.”
“I think that this week and our reaction was jarring to [Landgraf] and probably for everyone on the staff,” Libowitz said. “I know that it was very hard for all the people who had to handle it who were on the staff who have to make these calls, but I think that it’s not inappropriate that they feel as shaky as the student body feels.”