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Healing After a Student Suicide: Restorative Circles at the University of Vermont
Joshua Wachtel

Posted 2011-02-16

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“At first I didn’t comprehend what had happened.” Jordan Humble, a student and resident advisor (RA) at the University of Vermont (UVM), left his lab on October 18, 2010, around 7:30 p.m. and learned from text and voice messages that something terrible had happened on his residence hall floor. He made his way home to discover that a student had been found dead on his floor and that police and emergency personnel were already on-site. Only students directly involved in finding the young man’s body were allowed to remain in the building. Humble joined them while they waited to be interviewed by a detective.

“I wanted to get a feel of where everyone was at emotionally," said Humble. “I asked them what they had been talking about and what steps they had gone through. It became a coping session until I could tell people had had enough of it. Then I directed it to a more free-flowing atmosphere. I brought in games, we made paper airplanes, to get their minds off what had been going on.”

I had met Humble a week before this incident — which investigators ruled a suicide — when I visited the University of Vermont to meet with a group of residence directors — RDs  (professional university staff) — and three groups of RAs to learn about their progress during the first two months of using restorative practices, including restorative circles, in campus residence halls. In August 2010 the International Institute for Restorative Practices (IIRP) Graduate School, in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, had trained all 129 RAs plus other residential life administrative staff to run community circles, to help build community and raise awareness around such issues as communal living, alcohol and other drug use, sex and intimate relationships, cleanliness, incidents of bias and hate, and how to cope with stress and maintain personal boundaries. (In a community circle, one person speaks at a time, and everyone has a chance to contribute. Often a “talking piece” is handed around to indicate who “has the floor.”) RAs were also trained to think about responding to incidents like noise violations, vandalism and graffiti, cleanliness, illegal pets and pranks gone too far by working restoratively — with students, rather than doing things to them or for them, to involve residence communities in a process of regulating themselves.

During my group interview with Humble and the other RAs in his residence complex, Humble had commented, “My floor’s pretty close. They all hang out in the lounge every night anyway, and we all go to dinner together.” Nearly all the students attended community circle meetings, and Humble had already conducted responsive circles with residents to deal with two other major incidents that had affected the floor earlier in the semester. By this time said Humble, he and his residents were very comfortable with the circle process.

When counseling staff met with the students who had discovered the body, Humble joined other students who were returning to the hall. “They took it very hard and were distraught,” he said. “I collected them all together and we had a circle in a separate room. There were a lot of emotions flying around. You could feel the uneasiness and confusion. I used the circle to help people understand how others were feeling. I let them know it was okay to talk and that many people were probably feeling the same things they were feeling. It really helped.”

Humble wasn’t working alone; UVM’s integrated response took effect on multiple levels. Said director of residential life Dr. Stacey A. Miller, “I was home when I got the after-hours phone call from my supervisor, associate vice president for student and campus life Annie Stevens. I told my family what had happened, dressed and drove to campus. I called the housing coordinator, as he had access to student housing assignments. I knew students would be traumatized and some would not want to stay on the floor, and he could help if we needed to move students, even temporarily. Our Emergency Operations Group (EOG), which includes all directors from major departments and the associate vice presidents, convened to do all the emergency management. We identified who was involved, who saw things, who found the student. We figured out how to contact the family, identified high-risk students and determined how the RAs were doing, as well as the RDs and ARDs [assistant residence directors — graduate students] and how to support them. We decided to have a community meeting for all the students of the housing complex at 11 p.m. at the student center.”

Said RD Susannah Lawrence, “I was bouncing around that night checking in on groups. The RAs were in one room, finding out from counselors what resources were available for residents. I checked in with the students who were directly involved, helped detectives find students, helped residence life administrators connect with people, and talked with students who were not permitted to go into the building and were randomly assembled outside. People were shaken up and in various emotional states.

“At around 9 o’clock I was with an RA. A resident was upset, and we went together to check in and talk to her. When we left her we found a bunch of residents sitting in the hall. One of them said to the RA, ‘Erin, where’s the talking piece? Are we going to have a circle?’ They’d only been doing circles for a couple of weeks, but people already had the expectation that a circle would be a good response to what had happened.”

The community meeting at 11 that night was largely informational. The next night, circle meetings were conducted in all the halls in the residence complex. RDs from other complexes paired up with RAs of the affected area to help facilitate conversations. Said Lawrence, “Residents were overwhelmingly happy to have the opportunity to talk in this way.”

Dana Clough, an RA for a hall of upperclassmen who had less of a connection to the student who died and his peers, facilitated a circle during which someone commented that it wasn’t really about whether someone knew the resident but about checking in to make sure people were feeling OK. “It was nice to hear that,” commented Clough. “People nodded, and their physical cues showed they agreed. One of my residents talked about being a senior in high school when his best friend bought a gun and shot himself. He appreciated being able to find out from the check-in who he could talk to about that.”

Continued Clough, “In another circle one resident made a gut-wrenching comment that the resident who killed himself was selfish and that suicide was the cheap way out.” Before Clough could respond another student said, “You don’t know what happened. You don’t know the stress that person felt.” As other residents spoke up Clough realized that the circle had empowered participants to respond appropriately to a potentially derailing comment.

The following week circles were held in halls across campus, and other impromptu circles were conducted as needed. Said Humble, “About three days after the incident, RD Brian Hooks and I took everyone from my floor to another location. This circle was really important because it became clear people didn’t know how to deal with the stress and how to get away from the incident. I talked about how I had just traveled for a soccer game, which was a big stress reliever. Some people said they went to the gym or went for a run. Many residents hadn’t really thought about it. They thought that if they locked themselves in their rooms and went to classes everything would be OK, but they had a lot of trouble forgetting about the incident. Some used marijuana because they didn’t know other ways to cope. Brian and I talked to them and gave them ideas on how to cope. It helped them manage their stress.”

IIRP faculty member Dr. Frida Rundell explained how circles and the restorative questions like “What happened?” “What did you think when you found out about the incident?” and “What have you thought about since?” help people move from the level of emotional response to a broader level of awareness and begin to integrate their experience in a healthy way. “Memory freezes at the time of the trauma,” said Rundell. “The emotional brain — that’s just the alarm. When people experience the first shock the alarm bell goes off, and it freezes the memory of that event. Talking in the circle allows the emotional limbic system to flow. People think they have to mourn privately, but as they start to hear other people’s stories, that helps them get unstuck. That’s why telling and retelling the story is so important.”

Rundell referred to Dr. Kaethe Weingarten’s notion of “compassionate witnessing,” a process for healing from the trauma we experience every time we witness something violent. “Weingarten (2003) talks about three necessary components for compassionate witnessing: safety, awareness and empathy,” said Rundell. “Those three components cannot be underestimated in terms of the importance of creating circles like the ones for those young people who experienced that person committing suicide. With the circle we’ve already got a place of safety, with no judgment, and a process in place where people can express themselves.”

Having run circles for two previous incidents, Humble said, “This was the biggest of three major incidents on the floor — as extreme as it could get. Each incident brought the residents closer together. I used the circle to connect people emotionally. People were very comfortable sharing what they were feeling.”

“We couldn’t have known when we started doing community circles that a tragedy like this would occur,” concluded Miller, who decided the previous year to bring restorative practices to the University of Vermont. “But since we were already doing the circles, when a crisis hit we knew exactly what to do. The students involved, his friends, classmates, and floor mates are still in the process of healing, but I can say that the healing process has been expedited because of circles. The process has given our students a voice; a voice to share how they feel, heal, and move forward together. Now that we see restorative practices in action, we are believers.”

REFERENCE

Weingarten, K. (2003). Common Shock: Witnessing Violence Every Day, How We Are Harmed, How We Can Heal. New York, NY: Dutton.