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Part I

When students die

Four students died this semester, three in a 15-day period. Somewhere between balancing private grief and public concern, the campus community is left wondering: How many students die, and what causes their deaths? IU doesn’t always have the answers.

Donna MacLafferty was falling asleep when the phone rang at 11 p.m. It was her ex-husband, asking about their son.

“Have you heard from Brian?”

Brian was an IU senior majoring in neuroscience. It was September, only the third week of fall classes, and Donna hadn’t talked to him that day.

Neither had Brian’s girlfriend, who had been frantically trying to contact him. He hadn’t returned her calls or texts. Now, as midnight approached, Brian’s girlfriend was outside his apartment, banging on the door. No answer.

The windows were dark, and his car was parked nearby. Brian’s dad was calling 911. At her home outside Indianapolis, Donna tried not to think of the worst. But as the minutes ticked by, she knew something was wrong.

After what felt like an eternity, the phone rang again. This time it was a police officer.

“I’m sorry,” Donna recalls him telling her, “but Brian committed suicide.”

Brian’s mother knelt on the floor and laid her head on her bed. She was in so much shock that she didn’t know how to feel.

“It’s just this ... Oh my gosh,” she said. “Oh my gosh, he is dead. He is never coming back.”

What made the loss all the more alarming in Bloomington was that Brian’s death was the third death of an IU student in just 15 days.

On campus, rumors spread. Bits of official information came sporadically, if at all. The Monroe County coroner wouldn’t promptly release causes of death. IU, meanwhile, was reluctant to make all three deaths public. The University acknowledged one of the deaths, which had occurred on campus, immediately.

Striving to respect the privacy of the families, IU did not confirm the other two student deaths until days afterwards, when pressed by the Indiana Daily Student.

The lack of solid information raised deeper questions. How often do IU students die? How do those numbers compare to mortality rates at other universities? When a student dies, how does the University decide what to say publicly? Does anyone track these deaths and their causes? If not, how does the University know when there is a problem?

Over the past three months, the IDS has sought answers from public records and in interviews with IU officials, the Monroe County coroner and families of deceased students. After a recent unanimous ruling from the Indiana Supreme Court declared death certificates public record, the IDS also gathered those records from Monroe County and Marion County health departments.

Compiling a complete inventory of student deaths is difficult because key information that would enable access to these documents are missing from IU’s records.

The University has no protocol for tracking the causes of student deaths and responds on a case-by-case basis with no written procedure. In fact, IU does not know how many of its students have died.

The Dean of Students Office has recorded 156 deaths of IU-Bloomington students since 2000. But in its efforts to put together an exhaustive list from that same time period, the IDS has discovered at least 163 student deaths.

The most recent, a freshman who died in his hometown, was a week before Thanksgiving.

Locations of 67 student deaths within Monroe County since 2000

Multimedia by Mary Shown


IU’s numbers are slightly higher than known national college mortality rates. Dr. James Turner, a University of Virginia professor who headed the only study of college student deaths in the last 70 years, said that the national average for a student population the size of IU’s is 8.4 deaths a year. Based on the numbers since 2000, an average of 10.8 students die a year at IU.

About 40 percent of those student deaths occurred on or near the Bloomington campus. The most common causes, based on death certificates from Monroe and Marion counties, were accidents — including car crashes, fires, unintended overdoses and falls from balconies or buildings.

The numbers are higher than many at IU would guess. For men and women at the peak of young adulthood, death seems far away.

“I don’t think they are aware at all,” Turner said. “In fact, I don’t think college presidents or faculty members or the press understand the facts.”

This lack of awareness, he said, is a national problem. His study found that some universities keep close track of student deaths, while others take a laissez-faire approach. The result is that too little is known about how students die.

“It’s important,” Turner said, “to have accurate data about the death of college students to determine whether or not you are doing everything you can to keep them healthy and safe.”

Part II

The series of deaths caught Bloomington off guard.

Sophomore Danielle Lynn on Aug. 26. Junior Kelly Hackendahl on Aug. 28. Senior Brian MacLafferty on Sept. 10.

“What happened at the beginning of the semester, it shook everybody,” said Mark Land, associate vice president of Public Affairs and Government Relations for IU. “It shook us all. Having three students die so close together has made us think through: are we doing right by everybody? If we’re not at least examining our process and procedures when something like that happens, we’re not doing our job.”

Monroe County Coroner Nicole Meyer ruled all three deaths as suicides.

Even though the details in such cases are personal and painful for the families, knowing how people die is a matter of public interest. In the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling on death certificates as public record, the justices weighed the privacy of individuals with the need for transparency.

“Death is an intimate and personal matter,” Justice Mark Massa wrote for the court. “We are also mindful of the importance of open and transparent government to the health of our body politic.”

Suicides are particularly sensitive for the University. In situations that don’t affect other students’ safety, Land said he thinks about the family and friends first.

“The general public can dress it up all they want as ‘We have a right to know,’ but a lot of times they are just nosy,” Land said. “They just want to know.”

Students, he said, don’t need to know the details of every situation.

“We spend a lot of time as administrators pushing this rock up the hill everyday,” he said. “How do we help? At some point you can only do so much. Bad things are still going to happen occasionally. But how do you minimize that, and how do you support folks when things happen and how do you send the message, ‘This is a safe place, but you still have to keep an eye out for you and your friends?’”

Land is more focused on the families than the exact numbers. The data on student mortality at IU is more than names on a spreadsheet. It’s sons, daughters, sisters, brothers and classmates.

Part III

It’s a Sunday, and normally Bill MacLafferty would be donning old clothes to mow the lawn one last time before winter. Then, he could relax and watch football while his twin eighth-grade daughters finished their homework.

Instead, he is in Brian’s room, looking at the posters and pictures his son left behind.

“We’re not really making it into a shrine,” the father said. “Because it’s going to be a guest room someday, but we have things that belong to him stored there.”

Brian loved music, especially Chicago and Dave Matthews Band. Their posters hang on blue walls. Brian’s silver and gold trumpet, the one he played in high school and at IU, rests in the closet in a case lined with crushed ruby velvet. This year, he was going to play in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade as an alumnus with the Madison Scouts Drum and Bugle Corps.

Instead, one of the scouts carried a memorial banner at the parade bearing Brian’s name.

The last time Bill saw his son, he was helping Brian move into his apartment. Classes were going to start the following Monday.

A few weeks later, Bill called his son while on the way home from work, just to catch up.

“We had a really nice conversation. He seemed happy and content with the semester, a lot more talkative than usual,” Bill said. He swallows as his eyes water. “I thought he was in a good place.”

A day later, Brian shot himself. It was World Suicide Prevention Day.

Donna, his mother, had dreaded this possibility ever since Brian was diagnosed with depression in high school. She thinks he was aware that he killed himself on a day of prevention.

“He’s proving how silly it is to have a day of suicide prevention because that’s not enough,” she said. “Really the issue is mental health.”

Both parents agreed that the University’s response to Brian’s death was thoughtful. IU refunded Brian’s tuition for the semester.

“I honest to God didn’t think they would really care, but they really did,” Donna said, remembering the flowers sent and the professors who attended the funeral. “They have just been really nice about it. They didn’t make me feel like he was another number.”

She said she doesn’t think it’s the University’s responsibility to keep careful records of how students die; after all, their primary purpose is to educate. But it could help track of problems, she said.

“They should have more open lines with the students and let them know about the resources for mental health,” she said. “We’ve got to help get over the stigma of mental illness. We have to get past that.”

Part IV

Nationally, suicide kills more college students than alcohol, according to Turner’s study.

His study looked at data from 157 schools during the 2009-2010 school year. The research showed that for every 100,000 college students, at least six kill themselves each year. About five die from alcohol-related causes, including traffic injuries.

“That was very surprising,” Turner said.

His study also found that college students died less frequently than their peers in the general population. This indicates, Turner said, that colleges provide a protective environment.

With more data, more could be done.

“I would like to see some sort of national effort, perhaps by the Department of Education, to standardize the reporting process,” he said. “I don’t think you can rely on individuals to come up with their own standards.” Examples of Big Ten schools with detailed reporting procedures include Penn State University and the University of Maryland.

“I’m hoping that through our research, colleges understand how important mental health issues are on campus and put them in the forefront,” Turner said. “You need to do a lot more than educate about alcohol on campus. In fact, suicide is a lot more common cause of death. We need to carefully evaluate how we intervene.”

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Part V

Mary Land — no relation to Mark Land — opens her son’s Facebook page. She scrolls past the pictures of Mike with his high school friends the last Christmas he was alive and past the posts that read, “Mike, we miss you.”

She stops at one in particular, an email she received three years after Mike’s death. It’s from a woman named Laura who worked with Mike at the Bloomington Bagel Company.

A few days before his death, Mike and Laura rode bikes to Target to buy Valentine’s Day candy for Mike’s boyfriend. 

“When he checked out,” Laura remembered on the post, “the cashier was clearly having a terrible day, and Mike joked with her and charmed her until he had her laughing and smiling. I stood and stared. When he finished checking out, he looked at me and said ‘Why are you staring at me?’ ... I feel like it’s such a perfect example of what an incredible person Mike was.”

That was typical Mike, his mother said.

“He was everybody’s best friend.”

Mike was 23 when he drank himself to death in February of 2010. He was battling depression and secretly turned to alcohol, Mary Land said. When his body was found, his room was covered in empty vodka bottles.

“At first I couldn’t call it suicide,” Mary Land said. “But that’s what it was.”

“Even if it wasn’t intentional,” said Tom Land, Mike’s father.

On Mike’s death certificate, the coroner checked accident.

Even now, more than four years later, his parents run into people who don’t know what happened.

“I’ll go out of my way to not have to explain if I can,” Mary said. “But usually they say ‘Well what about Mike?’”

Part VI

When a student dies, IU might hear the news from a parent or the police. Rarely, a professor who hasn’t seen the student in class for a few days alerts them.

If they haven’t spoken yet, the University calls the family to give their condolences. That job usually falls to Dean of Students Harold “Pete”Goldsmith.

It’s not a call he looks forward to, but he tries to do it well. He holds in his sadness until after he hangs up.

Some parents are angry when he calls, Goldsmith said, or in shock. Sometimes they put a relative on the phone.

“I can’t possibly put myself in their place,” he said. “I really just try to let them know how sorry we are and how we’re trying to help them in any way we can and just to answer any questions they have initially. And sometimes they are questions we can’t answer about why or what happened, and we just don’t know.”

The Dean of Students Office notifies the Office of the Registrar, Residential Programs and Services, the Office of the Bursar, the Office of the Provost, the Office of the President, the dean and recorder of the school the student is enrolled in and faculty members.

“It’s like a pebble going into a pond,” said Goldsmith. “It starts very close to the individual, and it kind of spreads out from there.”

A response process – who to contact, which offices to notify – has never been formally written down.

“Actually, we have been talking about that,” Goldsmith said in September. “I think we will kind of move to a more structured procedure just to ensure that we don’t miss any steps.”

By November, his office had drafted a procedure.

“We are looking at the draft and deciding if we have everything covered.”

He is aware his office hasn’t kept a complete list of students who die, he said. At least seven names were missing from the records Goldsmith’s office provided to the IDS.

The name of Jill Behrman, whose 2000 murder in Bloomington was highly publicized, was missing.

“Sometimes we don’t know,” Goldsmith said. “Maybe we don’t have them. Maybe it’s clerical error. I just really can’t tell you. Not intentional by any stretch.”

To date, IU does not consistently record official causes of its students’ deaths. Now that death certificates are public record in Indiana, would the University consider seeking those records to track how students die?

“I hadn’t thought about that,” Goldsmith said.

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Part VII

Eric Behrman used to pick up his daughter Jill from her Thursday class in Ballantine Hall so they could have lunch together.

Yogi’s Grill and Bar was one of her favorite spots. She always ordered a large chef salad with the restaurant’s signature Hendrickson’s dressing.

“We’d talk about classes, what she was doing, her friends,” Eric Behrman said as he sipped Diet Coke at Yogi’s and remembered his daughter. “Being the dad, I always gave her some money. I always joked and teased her that the only time she wanted to see me was when she needed money.”

Fourteen years ago, Jill went for a bike ride and never came back. In 2006, her murderer was sentenced to 65 years in prison.

“For 30 months, we had no idea what happened to Jill,” Eric Behrman said. “We had no idea where she was or anything at all. In situations like this you want to stay hopeful that she’ll just walk in the back door one day, ‘Mom, Dad, I’m here.’”

He stops, sips through his straw and tries not to cry.

Since the awful day they learned of Jill’s murder, her parents have somehow managed to cope. They’ve organized an annual 5K in her remembrance and helped found a not-for-profit organization called Jill’s House, a place where patients undergoing medical treatment and their families can stay.

“The loss of a child is like a wound that never heals,” Behrman said. “It’s always there. And you never know what is going to bring back the memories. Things come back real quick.”

Marilyn Behrman, Jill’s mother, misses the little moments. An email from Jill during the day. Seeing a movie, just the two of them.

Since Jill’s death, she has become especially aware when a student goes missing or loses his life.

The IU community should know when a student dies, Marilyn said, but the family also needs to be respected.

“There are a lot of students who feel connected by the fact that they are students,” she said. “But yet, so many students didn’t actually know that person either.”

Marilyn remembers Jill’s friends saying to her, “Jill didn’t do anything that I don’t do. This could have been me. It so easily could have been me instead of her.”

“The more the public and the more the student body is aware that these things do happen,” Marilyn said. “The more they understand how you respond.”


Part VIII

One week before Thanksgiving, freshman Anthony Wilkerson died in Indianapolis, his hometown. The University did not notify the public.

One reason is because it happened off campus, said Goldsmith. “Part of it is a privacy issue for the family.”

But when Kelly Hackendahl died in August, in the Zeta Tau Alpha sorority house, the University worked quickly to dispel rumors. Students saw police cruisers racing through campus and drew their own conclusions as their Twitter feeds flooded with speculation.

“We felt we had an obligation that the public knows the facts,” said Mark Land, the University spokesperson. “We can help shut down speculation.”

After confirming Kelly’s death and her family was notified, Land released basic information to the media.

It was minutes too soon, he said.

At the same moment, Goldsmith was driving to the sorority house where Kelly had died to speak with her sorority sisters. Before he pulled up, some of the girls had already seen news of Kelly’s death on Twitter.

“The flow of information is so instantaneous now,” Land said. “Everybody is going to know in minutes.”

The University never tries to conceal a death because it would reflect poorly on IU, he said. Sometimes, IU officials don’t know themselves or don’t have enough answers.

If a death occurs during the summer, a family might not notify the University for months. Sometimes, the family is prompted to contact IU when they receive a bill. 

“Some parents say ‘I want to know every time there is a student death,’” Land said. “If my daughter died, I wouldn’t think it was the right of everyone in the community to know.”

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