Co-Commentary Editor/Art Director
The father of a McDaniel College student who committed suicide wants the school to change its policies to provide more safeguards for students.
Aaron Waltemeyer ’13 shot himself with his father’s gun that was kept in the basement on May 23, 2010, ten minutes before he was due to leave for Chicago with his mother, who was waiting for him in the car.
“To think that my son may have killed himself because of what occurred on this campus, it’s hard. It’s hard,” said Mr. Ron Waltemeyer.
In September, Mr. Waltemeyer brought awareness of his son’s suicide to the McDaniel chapter of Active Minds by posting a photo of sunflowers on its Facebook page.
“McDaniel College needs to do a better job in educating their entire campus community to signs of Depression and Suicide Awareness,” Mr. Waltemeyer wrote in the caption of this photo. “As students, you can advocate for change with the administration. Many of you are not aware that a 2013 McDaniel student committed suicide in May 2010, so let’s not allow this to happen to another McDaniel student.”
However, McDaniel College is bound by privacy laws, such as the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), that protect the privacy of student records.
Dean Beth Gerl of Student Affairs identified FERPA and the Health Privacy Act (HPA) as the two main legal reasons why she is not allowed to disclose information about Aaron.
Such privacy protections are the reason why Mr. Waltemeyer was not aware of his son’s downward spiral into deeper and deeper crisis during his time at McDaniel.
“When you visit a college campus, the college basically says, ‘we don’t care if you are paying the bills, you are restricted from this certain information,’ ” explained Mr. Waltemeyer. “If you’re an independent student, that would be correct.”
He cited Section 152 of FERPA, explaining that by this part of the law, parents of dependent students, such as Aaron, are allowed access to records.
“A school may disclose education records without consent when the disclosure is to the parents of a student who is a dependent for income tax purposes,” according to www.ed.gov.
Mr. Waltemeyer met with school officials on several occasions, but was unsatisfied with the information they were able to give him. He was left with many questions, so in order to find the answers, he legally became Aaron’s personal representative, thus granting him access to “everything associated with Aaron, from the time where he first had contact with McDaniel up until the present time.”
He said it became clear when reading this new information that he needed legal guidance to determine his “next step,” but when asked if the next step involved a lawsuit, Mr. Waltemeyer stated he was not currently planning to take legal action against the school.
“My only goal is to educate people about depression and suicide awareness and as far as McDaniel [College], there are definitely some policy changes that need to be implemented here,” said Mr. Waltemeyer.
He has suggested that a 20-minute video be shown to students during Freshman Orientation.
“This DVD consists of actual college students like yourselves,” he explained. “Some of those students had depression, some of them actually contemplated suicide and there are others that never suffered through depression but knew someone that had.”
Mr. Waltemeyer gave a copy of the DVD to Dean Gerl and to a member of Active Minds who was friends with Aaron. He firmly believes that if the student body had been more educated about recognizing signs of depression, it is more likely somebody would have noticed Aaron’s crisis before it spiraled out of control.
Mr. Waltemeyer questions whether school officials handled Aaron’s situation appropriately. He is frustrated he was not notified that Aaron was put on academic probation his first semester, nor was he notified of Aaron’s academic dismissal after failing all of his classes the second semester. He described several ways he felt McDaniel College failed his son, explaining that he feels that the administration, professors, resident assistants, and athletic coaches should have been more involved in keeping Aaron on their radar and helping him work through his problems.
McDaniel College could not comment on the specifics on Aaron’s case, but members of the administration explained college policies dealing with Aaron’s situation. They all emphasized that the college takes every possible action to keep a student safe and successful when it learns about a student in trouble.
“My greatest suggestion is for students is to connect with somebody that they trust. That person can listen, support, and connect them with resources,” said Dean Karen Violanti of First Year Students.
Administrators also said it is best when they can work as a team with the students and families, but this is not possible unless the student either informs their parents of the issue or signs a FERPA release form. Family involvement is optimal for providing the student with the best help and safety, according to Dean Gerl.
“I want to be clear that I am not blaming anyone for the suicide,” stated Mr. Waltemeyer.
“My goal is to change the policies at McDaniel College to recognize what I think are the failures of these policies to recognize a student in crisis,” he said. “And I don’t want to get caught up in suicide, I’m talking about crisis, and that’s important.”