Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Impact of Nicole John's Death

Nicole John, 17, died at about 4:15 AM on Friday, after she climbed out onto a ledge outside a 25th floor apartment in Manhattan and fell onto a 3rd floor outcropping.  John, who was the daughter of U.S. Ambassador to Thailand Eric John, was to have started classes at Parsons New School of Design this fall.  A statement from Parsons indicates that the school's "crisis management team" will be available to counsel those who were at the party that Ms. John was attending when she died, or others affected.

To answer what seems like the natural question, there is plenty of evidence that John was either drunk or under the influence of some other substance when she fell.  It appears she may have decided to step out onto the ledge to take a picture -- a camera was found near her.  The host of the party, who is 25, has been arrested on charges relating to having alcohol at a party with a minor present.  Ms. John had a fake ID, and had been at a club with friends until about 2 hours before.

The crisis management team at Parsons has an interesting job to do here.  Since John was a new student, the number of people affected by her death is probably lower than would be in even a few weeks.  However, those who are affected are probably also new students, many away from home for the first time, all relatively young, and therefore particularly vulnerable.  One could imagine that having a new friend die tragically just as school was starting would color your freshman year in school, and beyond.

The themes the team can expect to hear are complicated, too.  Those who were not at the party are likely to be angry, and not to be comfortable with that anger.  Ms. John did something dangerous when she drank too much, and that caused her to do something she would never have done while sober.  Her friends are going to be mad -- at the people who were there, at the host of the party, and at Nicole John herself.  But being mad at the person who died is never easy, because it's hard to reconcile being angry at someone and being sad that they're dead at the same time.

For those who were at the party, you can add a layer of guilt on top of all that.  Folks will feel guilty that they didn't stop her, guilty that they let her get drunk, and guilty that they themselves may have been too impaired to realize what was happening.  On top of that, there has been an arrest, which, rightly or wrongly, makes them wonder if something they express at this point will make the police look at them.  So they feel guilty, but may be afraid to talk about it for fear that their guilt will make them look, well, guilty.  Our society doesn't deal well with the difference between someone feeling guilt because they could have done differently and someone being guilty of a crime.

As for Ambassador John's family, one can only imagine what they might be experiencing.  All of the above seems likely.  Published reports suggest that Nicole John was not new to drugs and alcohol, and perhaps this was the moment they knew was possible but prayed would never come.  Or perhaps they didn't know, or couldn't acknowledge, the trouble she was headed for.  No one deserves to die the way Nicole John did, no matter what else they may have done.  And certainly no parent deserves to get the phone call the Johns family got early Friday morning.


Anonymous said...

My daughter attended Parsons pre-college program this summer and Nicole was in her class. They spent some time together, but did not hang out after school. She described Nicole as the friendliest and nicest girl in her class and a talented artist.

I know there was a lot of partying going on at the school in the dorms and out. Thank goodness there was a curfew during the summer program. I believe the school should have a curfew for all dorms, especially freshmen dorms. These kids are too young to have free reign of the city. I also think the RAs need to be more involved in dorm life. Parsons should look at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago as they seem to have a good handle on this.

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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
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