We Are What Have Have To Offer Each Other: Dealing with Student Death

During my O-Week, back in 2009, some seniors informed me that, to their incredulity, I had to be discreet about getting drunk. The shopping cart full of 40s that they had been distributing around the quad had been confiscated. It was clear from the onset of my time here that there was beginning to be a shift in how drugs and alcohol were handled at Reed. The word around campus was that the fatal heroin overdose a year and a half earlier had cemented Reed’s reputation as a “drug school,” and was negatively affecting enrollment. The administration was trying to kick this reputation, and had adopted a newfound zealotry when it came to AOD violations, but some habits are hard to break.

That March, a second student, Sam Tepper, died of a heroin overdose. The federal government told Reed that if we didn’t take serious steps to address the drug problem on campus we would lose our federal funding, crippling financial aid. We were told that undercover federal agents would be in attendance that Renn Fayre. President Colin Diver sent a letter to the student body stressing the gravity of the situation, “The wellbeing of the college depends on how everyone behaves next weekend and beyond. So does the future of Renn Fayre.

The following fall, the death still felt present. Gary Granger was hired. Dorm patrols were intensified. Debate raged on whether a legitimate and needed response to drug abuse was only serving to drive illicit activity underground, making it more dangerous for students. Many hours were spent discussing the role of the administration and whether they were moving in the right direction. But looking back after graduating, the administration doesn’t seem like the most important part of assuring that Reed is a safe and supportive place. What sticks with me is the care shared between peers, and perhaps most poignantly, the times when I failed to care for others.

Early in my freshman year, a person in my friend group—we’ll call him B—had a breakdown. We first bonded over running, and talked about starting a Reed Cross Country team. He boasted some of the fastest 5K times I’d ever heard of. In the middle of the week, B was found wandering around campus in an unreachable state, strung out due to excessive use of LSD. After he was reported for taking off with the student body president’s girlfriend’s bicycle, CSOs got involved. By this point, B was too far gone, and CSOs were reasonably concerned that he posed a danger to himself or others. When I came across it it had become a scene, with CSOs ringing the situation and a gaggle of onlookers crowded around the spectacle. A few students were trying to talk to B, with little success. I walked up to B and he said something to me like, “Oh, you’re here. That makes sense.” We talked for a short bit, and he told me that he didn’t really know what was happening. Spectators stared at us like fish in an aquarium. I was already late to class, so I gave B a hug, told him everything would be okay, and walked away.

Later that day, I was told that B was shocked with a taser as he attempted to run from police. He didn’t end up returning to Reed. Our group of friends connected the dots afterwards. "You saw him do acid on Monday? I saw him do acid on Tuesday..." We should have seen it coming. By the time the administration was involved, things had spiraled out of control. That previous weekend I had gone on a walk with B, and he seemed to be imagining things. I didn’t question it, brushing it off as an eccentricity or a quirk. B’s an intelligent person; I thought that perhaps I just didn’t understand what he was talking about.

That I failed to see the warning signs, and that I walked away from the situation when I had the potential to help, haunts me to this day. An acute guilt accompanies neglecting to help someone who’s in a great deal of need in order to avoid a minor personal inconvenience. But I think that the best way to forgive yourself is to resolve to do better in the future, and that what ultimately defines a person is how they move forward from a mistake. My friend group learned the hard way that we had to look out for each other, and while we were imperfect in doing so, we resolved to always reach out for help if we thought that someone, including ourselves, needed it.

Way, way back, in my first week of high school, my English teacher reminded us that two students had died in a car accident the previous year. He told us that our class was statistically more likely to experience a fatal accident because by the time we were seniors the harsh lesson that the accident taught would have worn off. His words proved to be grimly prophetic, as less than five years later a girl in my year was killed in an alcohol influenced accident.

It’s the same way at Reed. Institutional memory among students disappears in four-year cycles. I’m writing this piece because I don’t want these lessons to graduate. We can’t just learn from our mistakes; we have to be proactive about looking out for each other, as the repercussions for not doing so are grave. The year following Sam Tepper’s fatal overdose, a student went to the administration to report heroin use amongst friends in a dorm. The student reported this out of love and concern. What worries me is that the overdose that happened my freshman year is too faint a memory, and that that heroin situation might not have been reported today. I do not think that Reed College as we know it can survive another heroin overdose. Ultimately, there are more important things about being part of a community than our education. Taking care of each other is about the simple things. It’s about seeing someone crying and stopping to ask them if they’re alright. It’s about getting a bad feeling about a situation and not just brushing it off. Yet as much as I think that caring for each other has more to do with students and less to do with the administration, I don’t want anyone to hesitate to reach out for help. Serious chemical addiction goes beyond the support that a peer can provide a peer, and Reed as a whole has resources that the students alone don’t have.

Sam Tepper’s heroin overdose happened on March 23, 2010. Some people will never forget it, but the students who directly felt its affect on campus have now graduated. Our lack of long-term institutional memory is a problem. We can’t let tragedies be the sole thing correcting our behavior, as that would doom us with recurring tragedies when too many have happened already.

I dredge up this past pain because I believe that Reed isn’t a place that you can successfully get through alone. If time heals wounds, I pray that it does not wash away lessons. If you’re worried about someone, come forward. My sophomore year, Xeno Taylor-Fontana hiked to the top of Sherman Peak in the Sierra Nevadas and took his own life. The conversations I had had with this student replayed like so many question marks, asking what anyone could have done. The student’s mother wrote a letter, published in Reed Magazine in June 2011, that did more to clarify the point I am trying to make than I ever could:

I would ask each of you to care for each other, not just now, as you grieve together for your friend, but as you go through your lives. Gentleness in your treatment of each other and of yourselves is wisdom. We are all imperfect, foolish, and sometimes vain. Still, we are what we have to offer each other. Please give of yourselves to each other freely and with kindness. Try to remember Xeno with fondness and love. That's all we can do now.”


If you are worried about a friend or want help yourself, these resources, among others, are available for you:


After Hours Assistance
Nurse Advice Line - Community Careline: 800/607-5501
Mental Health Assistance/Crises - ProtoCall: 866/432-1224


Outside In: 503/535-3800


Portland Women’s Crisis Line: 503/235-5333


Reed Sexual Assault Prevention & Response Advocates: 503/847-9772


Rowan Frost  - Assistant Dean of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response: 503/519-7966


Health & Counseling Services
Medical: 503/777-7281
Counseling: 503/517-7349


Mike Brody - Vice President & Dean of Student Services: 503/777-7521


Community Safety - Emergency: 503/788-6666

Please remember, there is no safe level of heroin use; what is a good high one day can kill you the next.