Families of two Dartmouth students who died by suicide speak out, seek answers


Valley News Staff Writer

Published: 06-01-2021 12:21 PM

Dartmouth College freshman Elizabeth Reimer received an email May 19 from an assistant dean warning her of a looming deadline for a non-recording grade option. The administrator explained that she could withdraw from the course, a first-year seminar, but would not be considered a sophomore until it was complete. She also would not be able to retake it until the winter of 2022.

About an hour later, Reimer died by suicide, according to her family.

“We know she was troubled in the previous weeks and don’t blame the (assistant) dean for Elizabeth’s decision to take her own life,” her aunt Linda McNicholas wrote in an emailed collection of statements from family members they provided to the Valley News. “However, we do believe the ... email was the catalyst to her taking that irreversible action. The hole in our world is infinite.”

Families of two Dartmouth freshmen who died by suicide this academic year say they have questions about how the college handled first-year students’ transition to college life and supported their mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The family of Reimer, who died earlier this month at home in Long Island, N.Y., has a range of suggestions as to how Dartmouth might better support students’ mental health.

The family of Beau DuBray, who died by suicide on campus in November, continues to seek information from the college about his death and the events leading up to it.

A third member of the Dartmouth freshman class, Connor Tiffany, also died unexpectedly this year, and several students and college officials have also talked about concerns over isolation because of safety precautions during the pandemic. Efforts to reach Tiffany’s family were unsuccessful.

But it wasn’t until Reimer’s death that the college announced policy changes intended to address mental health. One of those changes was extending the deadline for electing a non-recording grade option.

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Asked whether that change was a direct result of the timing of Reimer’s death, Dartmouth spokesman Justin Anderson on Friday said by email: “Administrators decided to make that change after Dean of the College Kathryn Lively heard from student leaders that extending the deadline for NROs and incompletes would go a long way to relieve stress.”

McNicholas said she was angry that the administrator Reimer corresponded with hadn’t offered to extend the deadline for the non-recorded grade option for her.

“This is all Elizabeth was asking of the ... college,” she said. “Being well-aware of her fragile condition, all the (assistant dean) had to say was, ‘Yes.’ ”

Rather than send the email explaining the deadline, McNicholas said she wishes college officials had  called Reimer to check in and perhaps called her parents to alert them to the anxiety she had expressed in her email to the administrator. Family members said college officials ought to have known that Reimer was in a vulnerable place when she last communicated with them, as she had been hospitalized and sent home from Dartmouth due to “dark thoughts,” including suicidal ideation and an attempt.

An anonymous post on Librex, a social media site popular with Ivy League students, which her friends have said was written by Reimer, indicates that she was hospitalized for five days in the psychiatric ward at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center after attempting suicide in early April, and then following a subsequent hospitalization, she was sent home.

Her uncle and godfather Jimmy McNicholas said that he wishes that the college or hospital had notified the family when Reimer was first hospitalized even though at 18 she was an adult who could decide who would be notified in the case of a hospital admission. Jimmy McNicholas said freshmen students’ families also ought to be notified of grades and attendance records, as well as whether they are meeting demands or not. He also said a peer and upperclassman buddy system ought to be established.

“This is about supporting the student not punishing,” he said. “This is a vulnerable age and a challenging transition for many.”

The college’s medical leave policy also has come under scrutiny since Reimer’s death.

“I was beyond horrified when I found out that they first kicked her out,” said Jason Acosta Espinosa, a friend and classmate who said he also has struggled with his mental health and could see how being sent home might make a student feel “shunned.”

Dartmouth said it cannot comment on any individual student’s case. In general, however, involuntary withdrawals are uncommon at Dartmouth, Diana Lawrence, a college spokeswoman, said in an email. The college sees just one every few years and there is an appeal process for students who disagree with an involuntary leave.

“Our goal is to evaluate each case individually and help students regain the level of wellness required to return actively to the Dartmouth community,” Lawrence said.

Reimer’s family has questions about what mental health services the college made available to her after she left campus in April.

“Once Elizabeth left campus, was there any outreach from the counseling center to check on her well-being?” Reimer’s aunt and godmother Diane McNicholas said in the collection of family statements. “Elizabeth continued to take classes, so was still a Dartmouth student even though she was required to leave campus. What aid was offered to her as a young Dartmouth student still in need of counseling services even after leaving campus?”

Not knowing

DuBray’s parents, Fred and Michelle, also still have questions about their son’s time at Dartmouth. They said in an emailed statement that they’re not sure what to make of the college’s expanded mental health services announced on May 21. In addition to the academic changes announced following Reimer’s death, the college also pledged to add a second on-call nurse and three more employees to its mental health team, focus more resources on suicide prevention, and relax some COVID-19 restrictions.

“It seems that the college must have determined the prior mental health services that were in place were inadequate, but I don’t know what inadequacies or problems were identified or how the expanded services are designed to address those issues,” they wrote. “We cannot say if the expanded services might have helped Beau, because we have so little information at this time.”

The DuBrays said that as far as they knew their son’s transition to college was going “fine” before he died.

“Obviously that was not the case and we are still seeking information to try and determine what that transition looked like,” they wrote.

A police report they requested following DuBray’s death took five months to arrive and then left them with more questions, they said. They have recently requested more information from the college.

In the wake of his death, his family has created the Beau DuBray Memorial Fund aimed at reducing the suicide rate among native youth by developing an awareness and prevention program.

DuBray was a member of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe in South Dakota, and his parents said he “had the utmost respect for his Lakota heritage and culture” and “was very concerned that the profound wisdom of indigenous cultures have been so radically rejected and continuously destroyed along with the rest of the natural world.”

They said he hoped to bridge cultural gaps that could exacerbate mental health issues.

“It is our belief that the historical trauma of the forced acculturation and assimilation into the mainstream society is a significant factor, and we intend to bring families who have lost loved ones together with mental health professionals, spiritual leaders, educational staff, tribal leaders and all concerned community members to determine the best course of action,” they wrote.

They also aim to provide a forum so families who have lost loved ones to suicide can meet others who have experienced similar losses and “provide comfort to each other through shared understanding of their devastating pain.”

While the DuBrays have not communicated with the families of the other Dartmouth students who died this year as they don’t have a way to contact them, they sought to express their condolences to the other families.

“We are so very sorry for your loss and want you to know that you are not alone,” they wrote. “We would encourage parents who have lost a child to suicide to reach out to other families who have lost a child to suicide, for there is comfort in talking to others who understand the depth of your loss.”

If you or someone you know might be at risk for suicide, contact The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-8255.

Nora Doyle-Burr can be reached at ndoyleburr@vnews.com or 603-727-3213.

This story has been corrected to reflect that some statements about Dartmouth’s handling of Elizabeth Reimer’s case came from her uncle and godfather Jimmy McNicholas.