When tragedy strikes

When tragedy strikes McGill University

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McGill Reporter
September 23, 2004 - Volume 37 Number 02
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When tragedy strikes

On October 17, Katie Currier would have celebrated her nineteenth birthday. She wanted to be a physician, and was trying out for the McGill lacrosse team. She was still dating her childhood sweetheart. Being a McGill student had been a cherished goal of the Vermont native, and she was excited to be making a new life in Montreal.

At roughly 4 a.m. on Saturday, September 5, Currier was found dead in her residence room. The cause of Currier's death is still unknown, although a preliminary autopsy has ruled out homicide and meningitis as possible causes. Toxicology results, which could reveal more about what happened, are expected within the next six weeks.

"There's a tremendous sadness to see the life of such a lovely young woman snuffed out," said Sue Davies, the director of Currier's residence.

Sadness, but also shock, grief and bewilderment. The school year was only a few days old. She had attended three days of classes. Her fellow residence mates were just beginning to settle into their new homes when they were faced with a death in their midst.

To the best of anyone's memory, the university has never had a student death on campus. Although impossible to plan for the unexpected, the university has procedures for dealing with crises and tragedies of all types, and it moved immediately to try to cope with the tragic loss of Katie Currier.

The police were called in. Janice Johnson, who was acting director of residences in Flo Tracy's absence, was called in. Davies called Bruce Shore, Dean of Students, who informed Principal Heather Munroe-Blum and other members of the Administration. McGill Security, which had been contacted by Currier's family when their daughter had not arrived home in Vermont at the time she was expected, was also on the scene.

One of Davies' first priorities was to employ support systems for the students in residence. "When the police arrived they wanted to interview the students living in the immediate vicinity of her room," said Davies, whose own rooms became a central headquarters. Johnson arrived to help with the influx of students and phone calls, as word spread in the media and on the news and reporters began appearing near the residences.

Bruce Shore got in touch with Dr. Norman Hoffman, head of student mental health services, who came immediately to the residence. "I cannot recall such a tragedy in residence. When you have 30,000 students, sometimes dreaded events occur," said Shore.

"The university's immediate reaction is to get in and support the other students in the residence, or classmates."

In this case, the effort focused on the residence hall. It was decided that students would need to be told individually. Floor fellows and residence staff were given the information necessary to answer questions and let people know that resources were being made available for them.

"Word spreads really fast in residence because it's a community. We made it known through as many channels as we could that everyone was welcome in the director's apartment, and that that was where the information would be, and that we would be there for each other," said Johnson.

"At this point in time, it was a few hours old, so we didn't want to be announcing things from the rooftops, because we didn't know very much. We were just really concerned that the students who were immediately affected got immediate support."

Hoffman said that letting students know on an individual basis also allowed them to react appropriately.

"One of the most important things is to give the message that you're there to be a resource, but you're not there to impose anything. It is crucial to make people aware that they have the right to respond how they want, rather than they have to adapt to an expectation of how they should behave," he said. Hoffman also held a meeting for interested students in the residence hall who wanted to talk about the loss and how to cope with it.

Creating the appropriate environment to support students also means making sure that the residence remains relatively peaceful. Within a short period of time of the police arriving, the media was on the scene, having monitored police radio frequencies. The police had sealed off Currier's room inside the dorm, but it was up to McGill security to secure the residences.

"We helped to secure the perimeter of the residence, to make sure that people were safe, and not hassled by media or curious onlookers," said Louise Savard, director of Security Services, adding that there were foot patrollers around the building 24 hours a day until Tuesday.

Jennifer Robinson, associate vice-principal (communications), was notified early Saturday morning as well, and took media calls and granted interviews far from residences, at Burnside Hall. Communications was a big issue. Word travels fast in residence, and speculation and rumours travel faster. With the death on the news very quickly, calls came in from media as well as parents worried about their own child's safety.

Robinson said in this instance, it was essential to communicate the facts as quickly and objectively as possible. Very little was known about the tragedy except that Currier had been found, the cause of death was unknown, police were investigating and that there were no signs of foul play or violence. She spent the next three days talking to reporters, including from both student newspapers at McGill on several occasions and from the media in Montreal and Vermont.

Later that week, Currier's parents and family met with the Principal, Shore and McGill officials and students. Shore said that McGill officials did their best to provide the family with as much information and support and they possibly could.

Crisis response at McGill varies accordingly. Senior administrators and other key employees always carry with them the phone numbers of those who must be reached in the event of an emergency.

"Depending on the situation, there are various players at McGill who swing into action, but if a student is involved, so is the Dean of Students," explained Shore.

There are a number of services available to students affected by a crisis like this. Mental health services has a team of psychiatrists and psychologists available by appointment for assessment and treatment of many conditions which may interfere with psychological well-being. Couselling services can also refer students to appropriate resources. McGill's chaplaincy also makes itself available to students, and have a number of representatives from different faiths.

Shore is developing more elaborate procedures for professors, teaching assistants and front desk staff. In it are guidelines for such things as who to contact to help students in difficulty.

Although everyone interviewed for this story said the formal university response to the immediate crisis worked well, it was the spontaneous reactions of students and staff that received the most accolades. The upper residences do not have food services on weekends, so the cook from Royal Victoria College sent up muffins for students as they woke up. Floor fellows from other residences came over to help their peers in Katie's dorm.

Flowers started arriving from students — some placed outside Currier's door, others delivered to Sue Davies' rooms.

"The first reaction, from all of the students, was: 'Is there anything we can do to help,'" said Davies.

That Saturday night, students organized a candlelight vigil for Katie, which a student videotaped for the parents. Security Services' Pierre Barbarie and a Montreal police detective were there to answer any questions students might have. In addition, students traveled to Vermont to attend Katie's funeral the following Saturday, along with two representatives of the university.

Davies said that life has generally returned to normal, but that the memory of Currier has brought the residents under her charge together very quickly. Her dons showed leadership during the crisis, of which she is very proud.

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