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University Of Pennsylvania Kept Student's Suicide Under Wraps For Weeks

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A student walks past vented steam in freezing temperatures on the University of Pennsylvania campus, Tuesday, March 4, 2014, in Philadelphia. The university has seen four students commit suicide this academic year. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke) | ASSOCIATED PRESS

The University of Pennsylvania is facing criticism over how it responded to a recent spate of student suicides, in one case waiting months to confirm publicly that such a death had occurred.

At least four students at the Ivy League school have taken their own lives in the current academic year, three of them since Christmas. In February the university responded by establishing a task force on mental health. However, Penn faces criticism for not including any students, or a representative from the School of Social Policy & Practice (SP2), as part of that group.

T.J. Ghose, an SP2 professor, told HuffPost the task force was presented to the SP2 faculty, who teach social policy and social work, without soliciting their input. "It boggles the mind as to why no one was consulted and put on the task force," he said.

The task force does have two psychiatry professors, but is otherwise made up of administrators and the university's lawyer.

"How aware, really, are they of everyday student life on campus?" asked Allan Irving, another SP2 professor. "They're pretty removed, most of them, I think."

Around the time the task force was announced, the deaths of two students, Madison Holleran and Elvis Hatcher, had been identified publicly as suicides. An earlier suicide last August, that of Wendy Shung, also received media attention at the time.

However, the university only confirmed last week that a fourth student had committed suicide back in December.

Alice Wiley, a graduate student at SP2, committed suicide on Dec. 27 while in Georgia, but the school did not immediately inform students, waiting instead until Jan. 15 to send out an email about her death. The faculty wouldn't learn Wiley's death was suicide until a subsequent email was sent in February, according to multiple sources in SP2.

"I learned about it from a student of mine," said Irving.

In multiple requests, by phone and email, for comment from SP2 Dean Richard Gelles, he either did not respond or said only that The Huffington Post's information was incorrect. After repeatedly refusing requests for additional information, Gelles suggested Thursday that speaking about Wiley's death would violate the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.

A Student Press Law Center analysis, however, asserts that "schools can also freely release information about students over 18 after their deaths, since the right of privacy does not survive an individual's death." The University of Pennsylvania's own reading of the federal privacy law also states that the law does not apply to deceased persons, but allows that administrators "should exercise informed discretion in responding to requests for disclosures."

One of Holleran's former teachers, Ed Monica, suggested that colleges should be required to reveal how many students it knows to have committed suicide. He drafted a petition on that has gathered over 5,600 signatures to date. Monica has already reached out to legislative leaders in his and Holleran's home state of New Jersey, including Sens. Cory Booker and Bob Menendez.

"There should be no reason why a university or any college should hesitate putting these statistics on a piece of paper," Monica said.

Ghose said he thinks the wishes of the family should take precedence, but is "all for open information." Irving held a similar sentiment.

"From my perspective, the more openness the better," Irving said. "The more you can talk about, the more the entire university community can reflect on what these students have to deal with here."

David Fajgenbaum, a Wharton Business School student and co-founder of the National Students of AMF Support Network, which advocates for bereavement leave for students, said there is no strict formula for how a university should respond to reports of a student's death, no matter the cause.

"One of the big aspects with university acknowledgement -- or when they don't acknowledge it -- is that starts to drive a wedge between the administration and the students," Fajgenbaum said. Acknowledgement by the university can send a message that it's acceptable to discuss one's emotions in response to loss, he argued. "Society at large doesn't like to talk about grief, and college is an even worse environment."

The university did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

Concerns about the university's task force comes on the heels of earlier complaints that the university does not have sufficient staff to meet student demand for counseling services on campus.

"Student interests are being undermined, student health is being undermined, and [the university is] not addressing students as human beings," said Ghose. "This is why they're not on the task force."

CORRECTION: A previous version of this story called referred to FERPA as the Family Educational Records Protection Act, it's proper name is the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act. This article also misstated the circumstances of Wiley's suicide, and language has been amended to clarify this in the context of other recent deaths.

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