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Counseling Center helps Safety Officers cope with past tragedies

Counseling Center helps Safety Officers cope with past tragedies

A few winters ago, Campus Safety Supervisor Gregory vonFreymann answered a distress call at the Brown Family Environmental Center (BFEC), where he found a student bleeding out in the snow. From the tone of her skin, he knew right away that the situation was life-threatening. Thirty minutes earlier, she and a group of students had been sledding behind the BFEC when she crashed into a tree and lacerated her liver. VonFreymann immediately called the College Township Fire Department for an ambulance. After that, he could only wait for help to arrive.

VonFreymann lay next to the girl for 15 minutes and tried to keep her warm. The student was eventually flown by helicopter to the Mercy Medical Emergency Center in Canton, Ohio. Although the student survived, vonFreymann still remembers the way she looked at him as they waited for the paramedics.

“It was one of those things that you felt, and she even felt that she was dying,” vonFreymann said. “If it had been any longer she would have bled out.”

J.P. Downes, who has been a safety officer for 21 years, had a similar experience. About 10 years ago, a group of students reported that one of their friends was missing, and Downes spent hours searching for him. He finally found him on OH-229; to his horror, the student had been struck by a vehicle.

The student survived, but Downes had trouble moving on from the incident. A few days later, as he was walking by the Counseling Center, Associate Director of Counseling Mike Durham decided to intervene.

“I was walking by and someone threw the upper window open and it was Mike Durham. He said, ‘What are you doing right now?” I’m like, ‘Checking buildings,’ and he said ‘Get up here,’” Downes said. An hour later, Downes emerged from Durham’s office realizing the incident was getting to him. Durham had helped him begin the process of decompressing.

Downes is not the only officer who has received help from counselors. For Downes, vonFreymann and many other safety officers, the past is littered with tragedies and close calls that are almost impossible to leave behind. The staff at the Counseling Center plays a vital role in helping the officers decompress after stressful situations. Although such incidents are rare, they can accumulate after years on the job, leaving officers with a number of disturbing memories that they must carry with them. Student deaths are particularly hard on the officers. This is when the Counseling Center is crucial in helping them cope with the losses.

Bob Hooper, director of campus safety, knows all too well how hard student deaths can be on his officers. Six students have died during Hooper’s 25 years on the job. Hooper remembers each incident vividly. A few years ago, he remembers safety officers talking to a student who eventually committed suicide. In 2000, he was involved in trying to locate Emily Murray, a student who was abducted by Gregory McKnight, one of her co-workers at the Pirate’s Cove (the predecessor to the Gambier Grill). Police found her body in McKnight’s trailer a few months later. And in 2005 — one of the more recent incidents — he remembers finding the body of Colin Boyarski, who died on a winter night after consuming too much alcohol and falling asleep outside.

“Those are the faces I carry around with me every day,” Hooper said. “Those are the ones that we lost that we shouldn’t have.”

For each student death or close call, Hooper said counselors have helped the officers process the incident. Durham said the Counseling Center guides through Critical Incident Debriefing, which focuses on identifying what happened during the incident and giving officers a chance to express their feelings.

“It’s a process of working through things, and recognizing what one can do and what one can’t do in a situation,” Durham said.

This year, Durham and Hooper have been working to formalize the debriefing process. They plan to eventually make it mandatory for safety officers after a traumatic incident. Sometimes, officers blame themselves for a tragedy, even though the situation was beyond their control, according to Hooper and vonFreymann. Talking to a professional helps officers put the situation into perspective.

“You kind of unpack the whole scenario and start with the little stuff,” Hooper said. “You don’t do the whole thing.”

Even with counseling, there is usually one incident that lingers in an officer’s memory longer than others. For Campus Safety Supervisor Deb Shelhorn, who has worked for Campus Safety for 34 years, it was when a female student fell unconscious and died moments later due to a pre-existing medical condition. She tried to administer CPR on the student, but there was nothing she could do. Although Shelhorn feels she has moved on from that day, she has never looked at her job in the same way. She, too, got counseling for the incident.

“I think it changes you a little bit, you know?” Shelhorn said. “It makes you a little more, I guess the word would be ‘anxious.’ Because you do not know what you are going into anytime you get a call. It could be something really minor, or it could be something really serious.”

Deb Shelhorn has been working at Campus Safety for 34 years.

The daily uncertainty the officers face can lead to tense working conditions. After officers transport students to Knox Community Hospital (KCH), vonFreymann said they are often unaware of the outcome until days, or even weeks later, due to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which keeps patients’ health records private. Consequently, officers may be left in suspense for days about medical outcomes. This can take a heavy toll on the officers.

Both Hooper and vonFreymann said that, in the past, officers have left because they could not handle the high-stress situations that come with the job. VonFreymann said this is why the office tries to look for candidates with military or law enforcement backgrounds when they are hiring new officers.

This is not always the case. Before becoming a safety officer, Shelhorn was a long distance switchboard operator. Todd Bell, a safety officer who has been on the job for 15 years, previously worked for a bank.

Shelhorn and Bell believe their lack of experience with law enforcement or the military affected how they handled the first few traumatic incidents they experienced on the job.

During his time at Kenyon, Bell has seen two students die: One died due to head trauma, and the other overdosed on painkillers. He, too, carries the faces of those students with him every day, and feels a great deal of appreciation for how the Counseling Center has helped him cope with these experiences.

“I remember the two main situations I was in; I can remember almost the whole thing,” Bell said. “I have talked to counselors kind of on the side. They helped get me through the situation … and a lot of it’s just bouncing those ideas off of them, like, is this the right train of thought?”

No safety officers who spoke to the Collegian said traumatic incidents deter them from doing their job. But each officer did admit that student deaths or close calls often make them look at their jobs differently. VonFreymann cited as an example how safety officers changed after a student fell out of the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) bullseye window in April 2016.

“Those officers still talk about it. They’re still involved and thinking about it and worried when they go to the DKE lounge, they’re constantly checking windows now — constantly looking up,” vonFreymann said. “I think those officers who were involved with that, that will carry with them.”

Gregory vonFreymann stands next to the Campus Safety squad car.

Shelhorn feels the way she does her job has evolved in a similar way.

“It makes you realize any time you have a call, you are on it,” Shelhorn said. “You don’t take any of them lightly. Every call you go on is very serious. And you approach all of them as a full-blown emergency.”

Shelhorn said the department trains multiple times per week for potential emergency situations. This training includes first aid, CPR and first responder training.

“We’ve adapted over the years,” Bell said, “with the training and what we’ve seen. And what training we need to have, it has adapted.”

Even with new training methods and counseling options for the officers, the emotional toll will never entirely disappear. And either way, officers still need to be ready for the next call.

“Whatever happens today may be bad, but we have to look ahead,” vonFreymann said. “When I’m sending someone in a squad because of alcohol issues or even if they’re sick, or they’re having a some type of medical issue, I have to be ready for the next incident.”

Being prepared, as Downes discovered, is well worth the risk. Downes developed a close relationship with the injured student he helped on OH-229. A few years later, he remembers seeing him and his family at graduation.

“At graduation time, this student’s mother, through the crowd after graduation, I see him point to me,” Downes said. “She came over bawling and I hugged her and she thanked me. There are countless stories like that … of parents coming up to officers and saying, ‘If you didn’t do this for my kid, who knows what would have happened.’”

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