By Laela Warnecke and Courtney Parker
Professor Mary Droege breathed a breath of bravery and positioned herself before the class. She looked on at the faces of her students, a mosaic of mixed emotions, and contrived the courage to begin, for just last class there was another face in the mix, a face that no longer looked on.
“Ok,” she announced. “Let’s take a look at the apple.”
Only five days prior, Droege had received the tragic e-mail that found its way into the inboxes of the entire Castleton community announcing the unexpected death of student, Brian Dagle.
“My immediate reaction,” Droege recalls, “was to e-mail the other students in my class. I wanted them to know I was there if they needed me. I wanted them to know we were all experiencing this tragedy together.”
Droege, a mother of two, took on the maternal role she knows well and donned both the mother and the professor cap at the next class meeting.
“I really didn’t know what to do at first,” she confessed. “I didn’t know what the students would be feeling. I wanted to make sure they had the opportunity to mourn and discuss Brian, but I also knew the importance of continuing to move forward with the material.”
And just like that, the idea came to her; Droege knew exactly how to approach the next Flora of Vermont class. Dagle had decided to deliver a short botanical history of the apple for his final project, a presentation he seemed very excited to give. Sadly, he never made it to the next class.
Droege, however, took hold of the reigns and created a presentation of her own. She delivered it for Dagle, in honor of Dagle. After the presentation, the class enjoyed a conversation of remembrance over homemade apple pie.
“The class went really well,” student Jennifer Ferington recalled. “She let us deal with everything in our own way, but she also had the presentation for us which was really nice.”
Droege wasn’t the only one treading in unknown waters that week. Professor Christopher Boettcher found himself wading as well.
“It was a first for me,” Boettcher admitted. “I’ve never lost a student to suicide.” Boettcher did not know how to approach his first class without Dagle. Luckily, the Castleton State College deans had everything under control.
Deans Yasmine Zeisler, Joseph Mark, and Tony Peffer acted as Dagle for a day, speaking and visiting with his classmates in each of his scheduled classes. They did not know what to expect, but they knew their presence was necessary. Each filled the all-too-present empty seat in the classroom.
“I’m thankful to Yasmine for visiting that day,” Boettcher offered. “Her visit helped us all.”
Tragedies such as these are not an everyday occurrence for professors and administrators at Castleton and when they happen, they are tough to deal with.
“I try to look at all our students as if they were members of my own family,” said Castleton President Dave Wolk, when asked to reflect. “I did not know Brian well, but of course there was deep sadness for the hurt his friends and family experienced and are still experiencing.”
But while it can be difficult, officials stressed that Castleton is prepared for such tragedies. In fact, the college has an under-the-radar team trained and prepared for tragedy.
Castleton’s Emergency Management Team meets every Tuesday to plan and discuss appropriate reactions to various college crises including bomb threats, food-borne illnesses, power outages and even student death.
“We plan on how to get through tough situations as a campus,” Dean of Students, Dennis Proulx said, adding that the group recently completed a webinar on response to student death.
“You never fully know what to expect and how to react,” Proulx offered. “However, we were prepared.”
As soon as the team learned of the tragedy on Saturday morning, they immediately went into crisis mode. The candlelight vigil was organized and multiple phone calls were made to the appropriate recipients — from the press to Dagle’s parents.
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Proulx, a graduate of Castleton, made sure to cater to the needs of fellow Spartans, both near and far.
“We wanted his parents to know how the college was handling the tragedy.”
The EMT, however, wishes to remain masked and unmentioned.
“The people in the Wellness Center,” Proulx recalled admiringly, “they are the ones who were really on the front lines. They are the real heroes.”
Castleton’s Wellness Center sprung into action after receiving the news of Dagle’s death. Within hours they had professional staff members and a licensed counselor available for students who were on site until 10 p.m. Saturday.
The Wellness Center kept students and faculty updated on all their services and support groups available via e-mail and through the Wellness Center’s Facebook page, posting encouraging words and videos of ways to cope with a loss and how to recognize warning signs of a friend in need.
Counselor and Director of the Wellness Center, Martha Coulter, expressed the importance of responding to situations like this quickly and efficiently to best benefit the community.
“The resources and support of the Wellness Center were very heavily utilized by students, faculty, and staff,” said Coulter adding that tragedies, such as suicide, bring up very painful memories for those who have experienced a loss in their past.
“Young people aren’t supposed to be dying,” she said “it is jarring and upsetting when that happens.”