University of Toronto to erect temporary barriers at Bahen Centre as concerns mount over student suicides

The University of Toronto has announced it will be taking “immediate steps to improve safety” at its main computer science building, beginning with the installation of temporary barriers, in the wake of the death of a student — the second at the building in the past year alone.

The Bahen Centre for Information Technology was closed for part of the weekend, after emergency crews descended on the building after a student died inside Friday.

The school has said little about the circumstances of the death, saying it may release more information after “family members confirm their wishes.”

But in a letter to its members, CUPE 3092, the union representing academic workers at the university, was more explicit, saying it was “shocked and saddened to learn of yet another suicide at Bahen Centre.

“This is the fourth confirmed death by suicide on the St. George campus since last June,” the union said.

The issue of suicides on campus became a flashpoint earlier this past spring when concerned students staged a protest and sit-in outside Simcoe Hall, which houses the president’s office. Dozens called for action after a number of suicides they said had gone unacknowledged over the past year, saying they believed the school was deliberately not calling the deaths suicides in an effort to protect its reputation.

Long-term measures coming, school says

At the time, students who spoke with CBC Toronto raised the need for shorter wait times for counselling, better access to mental health resources and for the school to explicitly acknowledge when suicides happen on campus. The university acknowledged in that case that “a student fell to his death, but did not use the word suicide itself.

Students also raised concerns over a mandated leave policy approved approximately a year and a half ago, for students at risk of harm to themselves or others where mental health may be involved. The policy, which had drawn criticism from students and Ontario’s Human Rights Commission allows the administration to place students on a mandatory leave of absence if it deems it necessary.

The school’s vice-provost for students, Sandy Welsh, meanwhile, said the measure was “not meant to be punitive.”

Following the demonstration this past spring, the school’s president Meric Gertler said the school was open to suggestions from students about how to provide better mental health support, saying the school offered to meet with them.

In its update Sunday, the school said it has been working since the spring to design permanent changes to increase safety at the Bahen building. Construction of the temporary barriers began Sunday with longer-term measures expected this fall.

“The safety and well-being of our students are our top priorities. We’ve listened to concerns about the building and are putting in place measures that will improve safety,” said Welsh.

“We mourn the loss of our student, and we are here to support our community,” Welsh said. “Our thoughts are with the student’s family, friends, fellow students and instructors.”

Additional counsellors and chaplains were made available for six hours at the school’s health and wellness centre Sunday, in addition to regular resources.

The barriers are a welcome move to some, but for student Catherine Clarke, they’re still a first step.

“This is not a permanent solution of course, but it would at least discourage actions in the most accessible place on campus,” she said, adding that closing off such accessible access points might give students in crisis a moment’s more pause — something that could potentially save lives.

Clarke and others held an emergency meeting on campus in the hours after Friday’s death to share their concerns and to begin to map out a plan of action to demand more from the school — including finding a way to permanently decrease wait times at its health and wellness centre.

“After forming several amazing student groups and despite many meetings with university officials since March, when the last suicide occurred, we have seen minimal action from the U of T administration,” Clarke said.

“We need change. We need a student death policy, we need more counselling available to students, we need an active taskforce that actually listens to the students,” third year student Hannah Turcotte told CBC News.

“We need basic human dignity for the people that I know who are no longer here. We need the university to care,” she said.

“This crisis has a face,” Turcotte said.

“It belongs to every single parent who buries their baby, it belongs to students who hold each other on the steps — clinging to each other as they try to fathom the unfathomable, it belongs to boyfriends who find their girlfriend’s dead body, it belongs to the students who won’t come back and the students who are already on the edge, the students who have passed out in exams, and who have awoken to campus police. It belongs to the administration.”

The university says the Bahen building has now reopened and that it will provide an opportunity for members of the school community to pay respects to the student.

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