Q&A: When a student death occurs, this team quickly convenes to provide support

Kathy Kruse, Dean of Students Office

With more than 50,000 students and another 19,700 employees, the University of Wisconsin–Madison campus is often likened to a small city. 

As with any sizable city, the campus community experiences a full range of events, including the occasional death of a student or employee. When a student death occurs, a cross-campus, multidisciplinary group called the Student Crisis Response Team quickly convenes. (A similar group meets following the death of an employee.) 

“We want people on campus to know that, when a tragedy occurs, they are not alone,” says Kathy Kruse, associate dean of students and director of the Dean of Students Office. “There is a team of caring people coordinating a response and determining how best to provide grief and trauma support.” 

In this Q&A, Kruse and Sarah Nolan, co-chairs of the Student Crisis Response Team, discuss the group’s history, purpose and approach. 

What was the impetus for forming the Student Crisis Response Team? 

Sarah Nolan, University Health Services

Sarah Nolan, director of mental health services for University Health Services (UHS): The idea originated with a former director of our counseling center, who recognized the value of a formalized, multidisciplinary team with knowledge of the best practices around grief support. The team came together in 2011, with the Dean of Students Office and UHS sharing leadership. 

Kruse: Prior to that, the staff of the Dean of Students Office coordinated efforts in a more informal way to support those affected by a student death. As the campus population grew and the needs of students became more complex, we realized that a well-trained, cross-campus group would allow us to provide healing and support more quickly and comprehensively. 

What is the mission and makeup of the team today? 

 Nolan: Our mission is to provide an immediate, comprehensive, and culturally aware response to people affected by a student death, including the student’s roommates, friends, instructors, co-workers, family and, more broadly, the campus community. 

Kruse: The team is composed of designated representatives from units across campus, including the UW Police Department, University Housing, the Center for Leadership and Involvement, the Employee Assistance Office, the Graduate School, University Communications, and the Division of Diversity, Equity and Educational Achievement. However, there is significant fluidity based on the nuances of each situation. For instance, we typically invite representatives from a student’s academic department and major and work closely with the student’s advisors. 

What takes place at one of these meetings? 

Kruse: We gather and share all the information we can, looking at the various circles of impact. We determine what needs to be done and delegate the tasks. We are always very aware that for many of the friends and acquaintances of the student who died, this could be the first time in their young lives that they’ve had to deal with such a tragic situation. That’s where Sarah and her wonderful team members come in. 

What are some of the ways UHS assists in these situations?

Nolan: Each situation is so different. When we’re thinking about what students may need, we consider where the death happened and the student’s level of connection to the campus at that time. Situations range from a student being out of state and classes not being in session, to a student being on campus and other students being immediately exposed to the death. So the level of vicarious trauma can look very different. Based on that, we make a number of decisions. We can immediately dispatch clinicians and shift resources to make sure students have the support they need. This often includes reaching out to individual students who may be the most impacted and the most vulnerable. Working with the Dean of Students Office, we can set up listening and processing spaces. We also consider the impact on faculty, staff and family and offer various levels of support depending on the circumstances. 

Kruse: When it comes to family members, the Dean of Students Office tries to assist them in any we can, including being that one, central facilitator they can turn to when they need something anywhere on campus. 

News of a student death can spread so quickly today. How has social media affected the work you do? 

Kruse: When we started in 2011, we often waited a couple of days to convene the group, which allowed us to gather a lot of information before we met. Now, we often convene in a matter of hours. With social media, the impact on the community is so much more rapid. 

It must be very difficult to convene a meeting for this purpose. What is your mindset as you approach such heavy work? 

Nolan: We have the resources and the training to help people going through one of the most difficult times of their life. It’s important that we do it well and we do it right. Life will, unfortunately, always include tragic events. To be able to facilitate care and support when those events happen is humbling and an honor.  

Kruse: We think a lot about the role we play and how, like Sarah said, it is very hard work but also an honor. We always keep the student at the center of everything we do. Each spring, the Dean of Students Office holds a memorial service where we read the names of each student who has died in the past year. It’s a time to join with the families and friends of these students and remember the gifts these students brought to campus while they were here.  

Nolan: Like all of our cultural traditions that honor life, the campus memorial service is a really important moment. It also is one of the hardest moments. The weight of the collective grief hits you in a different way. We’re no longer coordinating a response. We’re sitting with these families in their grief.

For more information on the Student Crisis Response Team, please contact Kathy Kruse at kkruse@wisc.edu or Sarah Nolan at snolan@wisc.edu.