Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Murder at UConn: What If It's Not a One Time Thing?

University of Connecticut football player Jasper Howard got the game ball in the win over Louisville on Saturday. The next morning, he was dead, stabbed to death outside a college dance in the wee hours of Sunday morning. This case has all the criteria to catch the public's attention and traumatize a lot of people. Howard was young. His death was sudden. He was an expectant father. It's football season, and he was a college football star. He died on a college campus.

The memorials for Howard are underway. The team will wear his initials on their helmets when they play West Virginia this Saturday, and the campus is observing a "day of silence" for Howard today. The University Black Students Association is asking everyone to wear dark clothes in his memory as part of that observance. A candlelight vigil will be held tomorrow.

Properly honoring the memory of students who die suddenly is a tricky situation for schools and colleges. Obviously, educational institutions want to be respectful of students who are mourning and send a clear signal that they care about their own. In cases of violence, like this one, they are also trying to send the message that violence will not be tolerated on their campuses, and to give the community an outlet for their grief and a chance to come together rather than retaliate (if there is someone to retaliate at).

All of this, however, is predicated on the idea that such incidents are so rare that the observances are one-time events. If this is only going to happen at UConn once, then pulling out all the stops in honor of Howard's memory is more than appropriate. The problem, however, is that large campuses usually experience traumatic deaths more than once. Even though such an event is rare, someone else at a university as big as UConn either has been or will be murdered, be killed in a car accident, or die suddenly by some other means.

So, what is the UConn community willing to do in memory of these other students? Does it intend to hold vigils and proclaim days of silence for every student who dies? Every student who dies suddenly? Every student who is murdered? What are the criteria they are going to use to decide who gets a community-wide observance and who does not? And what will they say to the family and friends of the person who dies next week or next year and who want to know why their loved one is not as important as Howard?

When I talk to school administrators about appropriate ways to memorialize a student who died, I always advise them to consider whether what they do for that student is something they are willing to do for any student under the same circumstances. You cannot do something big for a popular student and ignore one who was less popular -- that is likely to be a disaster for everyone involved. You also have to be careful what you commit to. There are schools where they have commited to plant a tree in memory of every student or faculty member who dies, and the result is a "grove of death" which in some places is an attractive nuisance and in other places is a large area of campus where no one wants to set foot. If the death is a suicide, you have the additional concern that you don't want to make such a big deal out of honoring someone that others get the idea that suicide is a good way to get attention.

This is tricky, and I don't in any way mean any disrespect to the UConn community or Jasper Howard's family. They need to do what is right for them to process, heal and grieve. I just hope they are thinking this all the way through.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at www.SchoolCrisisConsultant.com
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