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Student Death Protocol

Compiled and promulgated by UNC Student Affairs, in close collaboration with key University partners, these protocols are intended to guide and support staff, faculty, and student employees in addressing deaths of students that occur while individuals are actively enrolled at the University. (When the death is of a former student or not-currently-enrolled student, individuals may contact the Registrar’s Office to report this information: 919-962-3954.) The University strives to act in a consistent manner when addressing student deaths, but the specific facts and circumstances of any situation may lead staff to adjust and adapt these protocols as necessary.

Responding to a Student Death

Carolina strives to foster a culture of compassion and care in all we do, promoting safety and well-being for every member of our community. When a member of our University community passes away, it is incumbent upon the University to respond in a sensitive and caring manner, recognizing that individuals respond to death in different ways.

The death of any student affects our University community, and in particular the family and friends of the deceased. Considering the sensitive and challenging nature of a student death, no policy or protocol can describe in complete detail all the steps that must be taken. These guidelines are designed to help faculty, staff, and University partners to respond to a student death in a supportive and consistent manner, while retaining flexibility to meet the needs in individual situations.

General Guidelines

UNC Police will investigate any death on campus, regardless of the deceased’s affiliation with the University. In certain cases, UNC Police may request assistance from other local, state or federal law enforcement partners. In the instance of a death, the area where the deceased is found will be restricted while the investigation is underway and no one, including the media, will be permitted in the restricted area until such time as police, the county medical examiner, or other officials approve.

Do not disturb the area where the death occurs. Unless rendering emergency first aid, it is extremely important not to disturb the scene where a death occurs. Call 911 immediately. If at all possible, secure the area in question, being careful to touch as little as possible. If there is another person with you, one of you should stay at the scene to keep others from disturbing the scene while the other calls the police.

Under no circumstances should any University employee make any public comment or statement about an individual’s cause of death to the media or on behalf of the University, unless specifically authorized to do so. (This also includes making posts or comments on social media.) Under North Carolina law, only a medical examiner has authority to determine the cause and manner of an individual’s death. In the event of the death of a student, all requests for information from news media should be referred to University Communications at 919-445-8555 or mediarelations@unc.edu. At no time should any University employee involved discuss a potential cause of death or confidential/private matters related to the incident with non-University officials or employees who are not involved in responding to the situation. This does not preclude appropriate University employees from providing care and support to impacted individuals without disclosure of sensitive information. For more information about interaction with the media, please see Media Guidelines below.

The Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs will designate a primary and single point of contact, usually the Dean of Students and/or designee, for the family in navigating University-related business and contacts with University faculty, staff, or students.

Specific Protocols

Immediate Notification Guidelines: Faculty, Staff, and Students/Close Contacts

Deaths on Campus

  1. If on campus, call 911 to be connected with UNC Police. The police department will alert medical personnel as needed. Be prepared to report your exact location. If the death occurs in the Town of Chapel Hill or the local area, UNC Police may be notified by the corresponding law enforcement agency.
  2. UNC Police will:
    1. Send an officer to the location immediately to secure the scene and begin an investigation
    2. Notify the UNC Chief of Police.
    3. Notify the State Bureau of Investigation.
    4. Notify the Student Affairs Critical Incident Response Team.
    5. Notify the UNC System Office.
  3. Police, medical personnel, or the medical examiner will coordinate with the Dean of Students staff in order to mobilize support resources and contact the student’s family/next of kin to:
    1. Inform them of the death.
    2. Answer any questions they may have regarding University resources, access to student records, student’s belongings, and other next steps.

Deaths During University-Sponsored Travel

The University staff member accompanying the trip should immediately contact local emergency services and the local law enforcement agency. As soon as possible once the situation is secured, the University staff member must contact the Dean of Students team. In the case of a study-abroad experience, the program leader or representative of the host institution will contact UNC Study Abroad (919-962-7002) and the US Embassy or Consulate. UNC Study Abroad will activate the Global Risk Response Team and protocols.

In a timely and expedient manner (given the needs of the case), Student Affairs leaders (typically the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and Dean of Students) will notify appropriate University staff/faculty/departments, which may include representatives from the following units:

Primary

  • Provost/Academic Affairs
  • Chancellor
  • Campus Health and Counseling & Psychological Services (in order to lock health records)
  • Director of Athletics (if deceased is a student-athlete)
  • Faculty Council President
  • Faculty of the student
  • Relevant Academic Dean and department leadership, as appropriate
  • University Communications
  • University Housing (if a residential Student)
  • University Police

Secondary

  • Auxiliary Services
  • Chief Information Officer
  • Office of Scholarships and Student Aid
  • Others as appropriate
  • Registrar
  • Student Accounts
  • University Counsel
  • University Development

The Dean of Students will also contact students and community members known to have close relationships with the deceased student directly, including: 

  • Roommates/suitemates
  • Known close friends
  • Leaders of student organizations or other sub-groups in which the student was a member (athletic teams, ROTC, faith communities, student organizations, etc.).

Convening the Student Death Response Team

The Dean of Students will convene the Student Death Response Team to advise University leadership and assist in coordinating the University’s response. This team consists of individuals identified by the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs and is determined by the specifics of the case, but may include a representative from the following illustrative units:

  • Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs (or designee)
  • Dean of Students
  • Institutional Integrity and Risk Management/UNC Police
  • Carolina Housing
  • Off-Campus Student Life
  • Counseling and Psychological Services
  • School Dean or Department Chair of the deceased student or, in the case of an undeclared student, the Dean of the College of Arts & Sciences (or designee)
  • Provost’s Office
  • Director of Special Projects and Communications for Health and Wellness
  • University Communications
  • University Counsel

Other representatives may be included, as appropriate, on a case-by-case basis. These representatives will work together to make sure the campus responds to the death in a unified and appropriate manner. In the event of a known suicide, the team will also assess postvention activities (to facilitate healing, mitigate negative effects of exposure to suicide, and oversee prevention efforts to support those at high-risk after exposure) and to examine the effectiveness of the University’s responses.

Campus-wide Notifications

The Vice Chancellors for Student Affairs and Institutional Integrity and Risk Management (in consultation with the Student Death Response Team and others, as appropriate) will determine what, if any, notifications will be made to the larger campus community.

In accordance with University policies, UNC Police sends out an Alert Carolina only if it is determined there is an ongoing threat to the University community.

As a matter of practice, the University will not send campus-wide notifications of student deaths as these messages can be triggering for members of our community and are often more harmful than helpful. Additionally, the University respects the privacy of the deceased student’s family and takes into consideration their wishes regarding notification of family/friends and their desire to make difficult personal decisions about any public announcement. Individual notifications to specific close contacts and affinity groups permit the University to focus on providing coordinated, targeted outreach and support and services. The University will work through localized departments and offices to assist the broader community and communicate the availability of support resources.

In the event campus-wide communications are determined to be necessary and are distributed:

  • Cause of death (if known) will not be released.
  • Additional information related to the death may not be shared until family or next of kin is notified and/or until the related investigation is completed.

The University recognizes that social media and related tools allow for rapid spread of information and misinformation. Rumors or speculation about the circumstances of a student death, including the cause of death, may begin to circulate long before any official information is or can be released by the University, law enforcement, and/or the medical examiner. In these instances, the University may need to address issues related to campus safety and/or student mental health for the overall well-being of the campus community through targeted outreach or a campus-wide communication. However, the University will not comment about a specific student death, as noted above. The Dean of Students will communicate with families and impacted individuals to ensure that they are aware of these efforts. In recognition of the potentially harmful impact, any campus-wide communication will not associate an individual student death with suicide.

All University faculty, staff, and students are encouraged to avoid any social media communication about a death, recognizing that any such communications could be insensitive and painful to the family, friends, and close contacts of the deceased student. Further, these communications could be mistaken for authoritative statements of fact or official University messages.

Providing Community Support and Resources

The Dean of Students team will coordinate support provided to individuals and groups affected by a student death. This may include coordinating with Counseling and Psychological Services to provide onsite, in-person support services, for directly-affected students where feasible.

It is a natural impulse to want a simple reason as to why a student death occurred, which might involve blaming someone close to the deceased. Student deaths may be attributable to a variety of factors, including accidents; physical, mental, or emotional illness; substance abuse; and suicide. As appropriate, interventions should involve an explanation of the complexity of death and associated factors such as suicide. Factors that may contribute to suicide are found in Appendix B.

It is important to remember that those with health concerns such as depression, anxiety, severe substance abuse, severe personality disorders and psychosis, or those who have previously lost someone to suicide or who have experienced/are experiencing suicidal thoughts themselves, even if not connected to the deceased, may also experience a difficult time managing grief and emotions. Whenever possible, efforts will be made to identify close contacts of the deceased student and connect with them with support resources.

Outreach services to facilitate support and resources to students will be extended, as appropriate, by an array of departments such as Carolina Housing, Counseling and Psychological Services, Accessibility Resources and Service, Diversity and Inclusion, Peer Support Core, and other units. 

When engaging with students following the death of a student, University staff will:

  • Make timely contact with known friends of the deceased student.
  • Encourage expression of feelings.
  • Promote peer support among friends of the victim.
  • Encourage resumption of routine as soon as possible.

For Families

The Dean of Students (or the assigned Primary Contact) will serve as the principal University contact for the families of deceased students. As requested or desired by the family, the Dean of Students may assist with the following:

  • Coordinating appropriate housing arrangements for parents and/or other family members visiting campus.
  • Pastoral care when requested.
  • Brief psychological counseling when requested.
  • Coordinating with other campus departments to conclude University business (e.g., Cashier, Registrar, Scholarships and Student Aid).
  • Collecting and retrieving personal belongings.

Counseling and Psychological Services can support family members in the immediate aftermath of a student death to provide grief counseling and processing of feelings. While ongoing longer-term counseling cannot be provided, assisting the family with referrals for ongoing long-term counseling is available.

Responding to the death of a student is a challenging undertaking requiring care and sensitivity. Any member of the campus community affected by the death of a student is encouraged to seek support as needed. The Heels Care Network offers a comprehensive database, searchable by resource, for Carolina community members to find the best resource for their needs.

Campus Memorials

The University does not host official campus memorials in instances of a UNC community member’s death.

In the event that a student organization or the student’s family wishes to pursue a student-specific vigil or memorial, the Dean of Students team will assist and provide support resources as appropriate. If University staff are made aware that an informal memorial is occurring, in the interest of student safety and in consultation with the Dean of Students office, a staff member will reach out to the organizers of the event and offer guidance. Support from the Dean of Students team may facilitate the safety of vulnerable individuals in attendance at these informal memorials. (For information regarding temporary structures that may be associated with informal memorials, see the University’s Facilities Use Standard, section II.D.2.)

Guidance for Faculty and Staff

Faculty and staff members may be approached by students affected by the death of a fellow student. Students may ask that they be allowed to miss class and/or postpone some of their academic responsibilities.

The University encourages faculty members to extend grace, compassion and consideration to students in these cases. Students who appear to be in distress may be referred to the Dean of Students or Counseling and Psychological Services.

It is important to facilitate the grieving process as well as stabilize the campus environment:

  • Do not cancel class or assignments for everyone. It is important through our actions to convey a sense of normalcy.
  • Handle student requests for consideration on a case-by-case basis.
  • If a service is scheduled at the same time as a class, a faculty member’s attendance policies may take precedence. Students can decide individually if they are willing to pay any attendance penalty that a faculty member has laid out in their syllabus and miss class to go to the service. Where reasonable accommodations can be made for students, faculty are encouraged to provide such consideration. Faculty members intending to go to the service should follow standard protocols when they cannot meet a class for personal reasons.

Along with other members of the campus community, faculty and staff members can play an important role in helping students who are struggling with the loss of a friend or classmate. Suggestions regarding how to support students in crisis after a death will vary based on the individual circumstances and may include any or all of the following:

  • Consult with appropriate offices on campus, such as the Dean of Students team and the Counseling and Psychological Services Center.
  • Identify and share counseling resources with students who are struggling.
  • Identify academic support resources such as the Learning and Writing Centers.
  • Offer to meet with the student to provide extra assistance with assignments.
  • Extend an assignment deadline.
  • Provide make-up work or examinations.
  • Compute the final grade or class standing without all work being completed, in context with applicable University policy and school-based protocols.
  • Talk about/recognize the loss in class. Before talking about the death, faculty should consult with the Dean of Students or Counseling and Psychological Services so the faculty member may benefit from guidance regarding how to have this conversation and what questions to expect.

Posthumous Degrees and Certificates of Attendance

In the unfortunate event of an enrolled student death, the University may award a degree posthumously if at least 90% of academic requirements for earning the degree are already completed. This is typically in the last two semesters or year of study for undergraduate degrees but varies for graduate and professional degrees.

Typically, posthumous degrees are granted only for students who die while enrolled during their final semester, with final courses in progress and near completion.

In cases where requirements for awarding the degree posthumously are not met, the University may issue a certificate denoting a Degree of Achievement. The Dean of Students, in conjunction with the college or school of the student, issues this memorial degree of achievement to honor the memory of the deceased student’s contributions to the UNC–Chapel Hill academic community. In rare circumstances, when completing a degree is impossible due to age or severe (likely terminal) illness, a certificate of attendance may be provided to a student who is living.

Requests for Information and Media Contacts

Out of respect for their families and those closest to students who have died, the University does not broadly announce students’ names or link cause of death to individuals. It is important to note that under state law, the University must rely on a medical examiner to determine an official cause of death. Depending on the circumstances, an official cause of death may not be determined for weeks or even months. Moreover, when a death occurs off campus, the University may not always be informed of the cause. Accordingly, University employees will not address causes of student deaths, including in response to media inquiries. University Communications is responsible for collecting and disseminating information to the media, and all media requests should be directed to that office. University Communications will work with UNC Police, Student Affairs, University Counsel, and community partners to obtain accurate and confirmed information and to ensure any information that is disseminated is appropriate. When University Communications is asked about a specific student’s information, they can only provide what is allowable from their public directory listing, unless a student has opted out of such disclosures as indicated by a privacy flag in Connect Carolina.

In the event of media inquiries about suicide, substance abuse, violence or other causes of death as general topics, the Director of the Counseling and Psychological Services Center or another qualified individual will be identified as a spokesperson in consultation with the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs. Designated spokespersons involved in media interviews should meet or speak with University Communications prior to the interview to review protocol and key messages.

If appropriate, University Communications may prepare a written statement about a student death that can be read or distributed to the media. University Communications will emphasize in media statements and responses the availability of postvention services and resources that assist the campus to process the loss of a student.

Media guidelines and restrictions apply to members of credentialed student media. We recognize that students who are members of student media organizations may also be affected by a student death. Students will not be excluded from any media-restricted events provided they do not represent media outlets and/or attempt event coverage of any kind, including interviews, photography, and videography, while in attendance.

General Communications Guidance

Often, offices and front desks receive calls regarding a student death from parents, alumni or the media. The general guidelines for these calls and emails include:

  • When asked about specific details regarding the death, let the caller know we are not able to provide any information due to privacy laws and concerns.
  • If a parent is asking why they or their child was not made aware of the death, explain there are protocols for notifications and support is provided for those impacted.
  • If the caller is seeking resources or has concerns about their student’s wellbeing, provide them with the information for CAPS.

The University will provide specific information or messages for email responses as necessary.

The University does not respond to individual social media posts regarding student deaths. Messages received on University social media accounts are handled on a case-by-case basis. If you have questions or concerns about any posts on the social media sites not managed by University Communications, please contact the Media Relations team: 919-445-8555 or mediarelations@unc.edu.

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