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.”