College lacks formal academic policy for students in time of bereavement

Geneseo is one of multiple schools around the nation without a specific policy to accommodate students dealing with the loss of a loved one. 

The college’s academic policy includes provisions for disabilities and religious circumstances, according to Interim Associate Provost for Personnel and Diversity Kenneth Kallio, but leaves responding to student grief up to the students’ professors. 

Geneseo currently does not have a specific policy in place on guiding faculty toward providing accommodations for students dealing with the loss of a loved one, Kallio said. 

“Faculty have a good bit of discretion in the way they handle their classes,” Kallio said. “We have a syllabus policy and it does provide that faculty need to address specific things in the syllabus.” 

Colleges nationwide have academic policies that help students manage loss, including colleges like Illinois State University and Trinity College of Arts & Sciences at Duke University. In the SUNY system, however, many of the schools do not have specific procedures for students dealing with grief, including schools such as University of Buffalo, SUNY Binghamton and Geneseo, among others.

“Professors are responsible for evaluating if the reason for someone not attending is acceptable to them. That’s really Geneseo’s policy as opposed to having a specific policy about what are acceptable reasons for someone not to attend classes,” Dean of Students and Director of the Center for Community Leonard Sancilio said. “Whether it’s illness, whether it’s death in a family, death of a friend, whatever the reason, it’s left up to the professor’s discretion.” 

A study published in 2010 that was conducted at a private university in the Midwest showed that at any one point in time at least 39 percent of college students are within two years of the death of someone close to them, according to the National Center for Biotechnology Information.

Despite the nationwide prevalence rates, Geneseo has never been faced with the urgent need to form such a policy, according to Kallio. 

“There are things in place for what you might call either an established need for accommodation or a scheduled absence for college purposes, but in terms of the unanticipated, unexpected, unplanned, to my knowledge, we haven’t really talked about that,” Kallio said. 

Following the passing of Savannah Williams ‘16 in the fall 2016 semester, the college and its faculty reached out to provide accommodations for Williams’ roommate and friends, according to Williams’ roommate sophomore Catherine Appleton.

“Halfway through the semester I moved so they were very good about finding me a place to live and letting me interview the people who I was going to be moving in with and making sure that I was comfortable throughout all that,” Appleton said. “That was probably the biggest thing they did.”  

While the college adequately provided counseling services and assisted with the grieving process, there are still aspects of the response that could have been improved, according to Appleton. 

The college could also consider creating a system that makes it easier for students to properly report the death of a loved one, without having to talk to multiple people and professors, Appleton said.  

“It’s hard as someone who’s going through that to tell people,” Appleton said. “To make a student who’s already going through that have to go and talk to their professors and explain that I wasn’t in class because I was crying in my room because I was upset about the death of a loved one just makes that whole situation more difficult for someone who’s already going through a difficult time.” 

The possibility of establishing guidelines in the future is not an unreasonable assumption, according to Kallio. 

“We probably need policies on a number of things we don’t have policy on,” Kallio said. “The landscape is changing. It’s probably the case that we could have some guidance for faculty on how to handle situations of various kinds. It’s not an unreasonable thing.” 

The current system in place has not had many frequent issues, according to Sancilio.

“Most people are pretty reasonable, and they try to understand what students are going through and their needs and concerns,” Sancilio said. “It’s trying to balance both the academic side and the personal side that becomes difficult. I think for the most part it works.”u

 Following the deaths of Geneseo students Kelsey Annese ‘16 and Matthew Hutchinson ‘16, the college community held a memorial event (pictured above). Beyond memorial events, some have questioned the absence of a formal academic standard for grieving students. (Keith Walters/Campus Photographer

Following the deaths of Geneseo students Kelsey Annese ‘16 and Matthew Hutchinson ‘16, the college community held a memorial event (pictured above). Beyond memorial events, some have questioned the absence of a formal academic standard for grieving students. (Keith Walters/Campus Photographer

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