Miami reflects on five student deaths this year
The bells at St. Mary's Catholic Church pierce the cold Oxford night with a mournful clanging. Ding. Dong. Ding. Dong. The last students file in and find seats in the church's packed sanctuary. It is Wednesday, Nov. 20 and Jaclyn Wulf's memorial service is about to begin. Most of the rows are filled with Jaclyn's sisters from the Alpha Xi Delta sorority who came to know Jaclyn when she participated in rush last January.
"I knew the minute we hung out she was so much more than the shy, sweet girl I met during the preference round," Jaclyn's "Big," Hanna Weigel, wrote in an email interview. "I couldn't have asked for a better 'Little.'"
It was through the process of pledging Alpha Xi Delta that Jaclyn met sophomores Jane Spooner and Brooke Sabatelli who became her close friends and roommates in Swing Hall this year.
"She had a gift of being able to tell if her friends were upset just by looking at us," Spooner wrote. "If we were upset for whatever reason, she would do everything in her power to make us happy."
Together, the three enjoyed late-night dance parties in their room, hockey games and whole grain goldfish.
"Jaclyn stood up for those around her," Hanna wrote. "She was fiercely protective and wasn't afraid to tell others her feelings."
Though Jaclyn always had a full social calendar, she was a driven student as well. She was a psychology major with aspirations of going on to study neuropsychology in graduate school, Brooke said. Nonetheless, she always made time for midnight ice cream runs, trips home to visit her nephews and leaving notes on her roommates' desks.
Four nights before, several of the students now crammed into St. Mary's had been with Jaclyn at a party. The following morning, she was found unresponsive in her room. Her Resident Assistant (RA), Ashton Spann called the Miami University Police Department, reporting that she had "had a lot to drink last night." MUPD sent the Oxford Life Squad to transport Jaclyn to the McCullough-Hyde Memorial Hospital where she was declared dead at 9:42 a.m.
Jaclyn is the fifth Miami student to die in the last 12 months.
Ding. Andy Supronas. Dong. Nicole Sefton. Ding. Sean VanDyne. Dong. Jake Jarman. Ding. Jaclyn Wulf. One last peal from St. Mary's bells and then all is silent.
A year of loss
"There is nothing so horrible as the phone call that comes to tell me about a student death," Miami University President David Hodge said. "As a president and as a parents, it's horrible, devastating. There are no adequate words to describe the sense of grief."
Hodge has received five such phone calls in the last year, beginning with the call about Andy Supronas Dec. 3, 2012.
At first glance, Ainas "Andy" Supronas may have come off as intimidating to some, weighing in at 250 pounds of pure muscle. But behind the built exterior was a man who loved his cat, Ducky, and made regular trips home to Mason, Ohio to visit him. He loved fast cars and long workouts and never missed a party, according to his roommates.
Originally from Lithuania, Andy's family moved to Ohio when he was in high school. A natural athlete, Andy started his career at Miami on the men's swim team, but later dropped out to play water polo recreationally. As a first-year, he pledged the Phi Delta Theta fraternity where he met two of his closest friends, Thomas Goldberg and JT Corcoran.
"He had a heart of gold," Thomas said. "He was loving, kind, generous. He was always the person to go to."
Andy was the sort to look out for his friends at any cost.
"One time, there were these two girls he knew and this guy was being way too physical with them, so Andy took him on and all his friends and got two black eyes and a broken nose," Thomas said.
"He didn't even hit the guy at first," JT chimed in. "He was shielding the girls and the guy decked him."
Though Andy was always the life of the party, he had a quiet side he embraced in his budding career as a software engineer. He didn't let his academics interfere with his social life but his natural affinity for learning got him good grades nonetheless. He even had an internship lined up with IBM for the summer, Thomas said.
On Saturday, Dec. 1, 2012, Andy had made plans to get together with JT.
"I kept texting him, I thought he was just ignoring me," JT said. "He tended to sleep really late."
Andy never woke up. On Dec. 3, 2012, the Oxford Police Department found Andy dead in his off-campus apartment. The toxicity report and autopsy revealed large amounts of heroin in his blood stream and determined that to be the cause of his death.
He would have been 23 today.
Ever since Nicole Sefton suffered a back injury playing catcher for her softball team in high school, she knew she wanted to be a physical therapist. She watched in amazement as her own therapist carefully, gently helped her gain back the ability to play her favorite sport. That is what she wanted to do. She told her mother, Tina Sefton, she had decided she wanted to work with children to restore them to physical wholeness. She never looked back.
"Nikki didn't waffle a lot," Tina said. "She knew where she was going."
Nicole knew a long and arduous road lay ahead of her. She applied and was accepted to several universities but chose Miami because of its proximity to home. Though her parents supported her, they told her she would have to pay her own tuition, but Nicole was undaunted. She worked two jobs and commuted to Miami's Oxford and Hamilton campuses from her home in Shandon, Ohio.
"Nothing in life is free," Tina said. "My kids have learned that if you want to achieve something, you have to work for it."
With the help of her first-year adviser, Nicole laid out her plan to one day become a physical therapist and delved into the athletic training major.
"She had a great adviser," Tina said. "I wish I knew who it was and I could tell them thank you. They were clearly in the right profession. They helped her break down her long-term goals into short-term steps."
Nicole had just paid her second tuition bill when she lost control of her car and died in a single-vehicle car crash Jan. 24, 2012. The toxicity report revealed her Blood Alcohol Content to be 0.210.
Sean VanDyne could be spotted at a distance wearing his bright red Toms shoes. Hope McClain, his coworker at Skyline Chili in Hamilton, looked for those shoes whenever she had a shift.
"You knew it was going to be a good day when you walked in and saw Sean," Hope said.
His quirky sense of humor and strong work ethic made him a fun person to work with. He could often be heard spouting words in Mandarin he was learning at Miami as a part of the Farmer School of Business' (FSB) China Business Program.
"He'd come in here and talk in Chinese to the customers, yelling 'zain jin!' as they were leaving," Sean's coworker and childhood friend Jon Lee said, laughing at the memory. "He always wanted other people to have a good time."
Sean had become something of a legend around Hamilton High, as an academic and an athlete, and he could most often be spotted with his best friend, Ben Flick and his girlfriend Rachel Hildebrand. He married her in August, 2013 after dating for five years.
"He just really loved to help people," Rachel said. "You could call him literally at 3 a.m. or 5 a.m. and he'd be there."
They moved into a house of their own in Hamilton and both enrolled at FSB, Rachel studying management and Sean studying accountancy. Sean had always dreamed of becoming an FBI agent someday, according to his parents.
A few weeks into his first semester, his old friend, Ben Flick, came to Miami on the University of Cincinnati football squad to play at Yager stadium. After the game, Sean, Ben and two of Ben's UC friends went for a drive through Hamilton's hilly roads. They never returned.
Sean, who was driving, lost control of the car when it flipped on Stahlheber Road. The crash killed Ben immediately and Sean died two days later in the hospital. The Hamilton County Coroner's office has not yet completed his toxicity report.
Jake Jarman had a knack for certain things. Anything to do with mountains came naturally to him, having grown up in the mile-high city of Denver, Colo. He loved climbing them, summiting the 14,000-foot Longs Peak with his father, and he loved zooming down them, competing in mountain ski racing and freestyle skiing.
"He loved sports and anything fast," his mother, Kathleen Jarman, wrote in an email interview.
But he also had a knack for selling things, "for making people see things his way," Kathleen wrote. As a child, he was the ringleader of the neighborhood, pulling the other children along with him in whatever endeavor came to his mind, whether it was selling lemonade and snow cones or playing street hockey on the cul-de-sac. In high school, he sold Cutco knives door-to-door and excelled at that.
He loved storytelling, which and was pursuing a degree in English and Film at the Colorado University, but he decided to put his knack for persuasion to good use with a marketing degree and transferred to Miami after his freshman year. Getting into FSB became his first goal.
"He planned his classes and Miami Plan around the goal of getting into the Farmer School of Business," Kathleen wrote. "He wrote his GPA goal on each of his notebooks."
He had registered for a film studies course over winter term and was contemplating rushing a fraternity.
"Jake was growing up and figuring things out," Kathleen wrote.
But in the early hours of the morning on Oct. 26, Jake was standing on the railroad tracks between South College and South Poplar when a CSX train came rumbling through. The impact killed him on the spot. The Oxford Police Department has not yet determined why Jake was on the tracks and the Butler County Coroner's office is performing a toxicity report and autopsy to determine whether any substances were in his system at his time of death.
With each passing student death, Hodge has been visiting and revisiting the question, "what can we be doing?"
"I'd like to believe and still believe that we can do something about this," Hodge said. "The best thing we can probably do is develop bystander intervention. We can be doing a lot more. We have to be responsible for each other."
Increasing education and programming on campus about bystander intervention has become a top priority for the administration, Hodge said.
As a faculty member, journalism professor Patricia Newberry has long been demanding that the administration do more to educate its students about how to care for themselves and each other.
"It is the responsibility of our institution to share information that can help us all make better decisions," Newberry said. "For this reason, I would like to see the university be more proactive and transparent about sharing the cause of death."
This is particularly important, Newberry said, if the cause of death is substance-related, like it has been shown to be in the cases of Andy and Nicole.
"We have to do something to counter the lure of drugs and alcohol, to help our bright, young students make better choices," Newberry said. After the five deaths of this past year, Newberry has decided to take up the issue in her classes.
"I am not at all adverse to talking to my students about alcohol anymore," Newberry said.
The university's latest approach has been the I Am Miami initiative.
"That's what the Code of Love and Honor is all about," Hodge said. "The student body must embrace the notion that we can help each other... I implore our students to embrace that notion."
In Andy's case, Thomas and JT said they had no idea he had a heroin problem, though the Butler County Coroner's report reads that he had a medical history of opiate dependence.
"We lived in the same room sophomore year, and I never would have guessed," JT said.
But even in cases where students might be aware that a friend is in trouble, many students would choose not to get the authorities involved, Thomas said.
"They're afraid to call 911 because that medical amnesty bill isn't always upheld," Thomas said. "Students tend to think it's Oxford and the university versus the students."
This is precisely what Hodge and Interim Dean of Students Mike Curme are working to change.
"We must first make sure that every member of our community knows the Miami University values, and the related Code of Love and Honor. That, I think, is the easy part," Curme said. "The harder part is empowering each of us to help prevent another from acting in ways inconsistent with those values, or to intervene when we witness concerning behavior."
In this spirit, Hodge and the office of student affairs are developing focused programming on bystander intervention, slated to appear in the standard regimen of first-year programming next fall.
"There's a lot of grief, but a lot of positive energy," Hodge said. "Grief is a reflection of a community spirit. If every student is asking that question 'What could I have done?' then out of these tragedies can come a deepening of that culture [of respect]."
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