- Type of Process: Community Group Conference
- Conference Participants:
- Offender –Ron
- Offender Support/Impacted Parties- Ron’s best friend (Shane) and ex-girlfriend (Lizzie)
- 4 Residential Advisors who were involved in the incident (Lucy, Wes, Toby, and James)
- 1 Hall Manager (Meg)
- 2 Facilitators
- Criminal Charges Pending: None (Note to readers from the United States: the drinking age in New Zealand is 18 so all university students are able to legally and openly drink in the dorms. RAs still monitor the halls and intervene when people need help or things get out of control, but unlike dorms in the United States, they do not generally restrict drinking or confiscate alcohol. If this case had taken place in the US, the students involved would be facing Minor in Possession charges.)
- Referring Agent: University Residential Life staff
- Factual Synopsis: A university freshman fell down the area between the stairs in the stairwell of his dorm while extremely drunk. He fell three stories and the RAs and his friends who were there worried he may die, have brain damage or be paralyzed.
Ron (18) lives in a university dorm with a group of guys he went to boarding school with. They have been close for a long time and spend most weekend evenings drinking together. The group is the central hub for partying in the dorm and most of the problems the RAs have encountered so far this year have taken place on their floor.
On the night of the incident, Ron and his friends had been drinking since about 4:30pm. Ron reported having had ten drinks in a short period of time. The RAs encountered him around 8pm and he was severely intoxicated. He urinated in the hallway and cursed at an RA named Wes. The head RA who was on duty that night (Toby) and Wes spoke strictly with Ron and instructed him to stop drinking. Not long after that, Ron attempted to slide down the banister of the stairwell and fell backwards, landing on the ground three stories below.
When the co-facilitator and I met with Ron for the pre-conference, he shared that he didn’t remember anything that happened in between falling backwards from the banister and waking up in the hospital on Sunday. Miraculously, Ron is recovering quickly and so far does not appear to have any permanent brain damage. He has several staples in the back of his head and is not allowed to exercise or drink for several months, but is otherwise back to normal. During our conversation with Ron, he acknowledged that the alcohol had played a primary role in the incident and said he considered himself lucky that the injuries hadn’t been worse. When we asked him to talk about who might have been impacted, he mentioned that his friends and family were relieved he was ok, but otherwise couldn’t think of any impacts. It was clear that Ron did not yet understand the seriousness of the incident and the harms experienced by others.
We also pre-conferenced Ron’s best friend Shane and ex-girlfriend Lizzie. Shane and Lizzie were both brought to the scene by the RAs who responded and saw Ron on the ground, his head in a pool of blood. They stayed there and tried to talk to him as the paramedics put him on a stretcher, turned him to the side when he began to vomit, and loaded him in the ambulance. Lizzie went with Ron to the hospital and stayed with him until his mom arrived. She said the whole time she was just concerned about Ron and whether he would be ok and hadn’t had a chance to process her own emotions about the incident. Her personality is to ignore her emotions and focus on something else. Shane also expressed being relieved that Ron was ok and ready for things to go back to normal. He mentioned several times how relieved he was that Ron was “still Ron” and that his personality was still intact after such a major blow to the head. He said this incident had been a wakeup call to the group to not drink as much and to look out for each other, but said mostly everyone was just trying to move past it.
The turning point for all involved came during the conference when the RAs spoke and shared the story of what had happened from their perspective and their role in it. James was walking in the hallway on the second floor when he saw something falling in the area in between the stairs out of the corner of his eye and heard a thud as it hit the ground. He assumed it was trash being thrown down from the third floor, so first raced up to the third floor to see if there was anyone there. When he looked down, he saw Ron’s body sprawled out on the ground with a pool of blood already forming. He ran down the stairs to assist Wes who was already at the scene. Wes had heard the thump from Ron hitting the ground and had gone to investigate. He explained that when he first saw Ron’s body on the ground, he was sure he was dead and his immediate thought was that Ron had jumped on purpose. Wes knew Ron was upset after getting in trouble with the RAs earlier and worried he might have tried to take his own life. Wes described sitting by Ron’s head, trying to towel up the blood and keep Ron awake until medical help arrived. He said that a few times, Ron let out a big sigh and Wes thought that he had died in that moment. Meanwhile, James called for an ambulance and also phoned the two RAs on duty, Toby and Lucy.
When Toby arrived and saw what had happened, he also thought immediately about suicide and the thought tortured him. Toby described that throughout the night and for several days after he would see Ron’s body falling when he closed his eyes. He struggled with trauma from the experience and a few of his family members drove up to the university to support him. Wes also said he was haunted by the experience and has continued to see images of Ron falling and surrounded by blood. Lucy described herself as squeamish when it comes to blood and vomit, so took on the role of finding Ron’s friend Shane. She described that when she went up to the hall to find Shane, no one would talk to her or tell her where he was. Because the students associate RAs with getting in trouble, no one wanted to tell her where she could find Shane. Finally Shane stepped forward and said he was Ron’s friend. She told him something had happened to Ron and took him to the stairwell. Soon after, Lizzie also arrived and Lucy took on the role of comforting her. Through Lucy’s story, the true impact on Shane and Lizzie was revealed to Ron. She told him about how upset they were and worried that they may have lost him. The RAs all also spoke about how difficult it was to go right back to work after this incident and deal with students yelling at them and being upset with them for doing their job, especially after having just dealt with such a life-threatening and traumatic incident.
The hall manager, Meg, was called to the scene from home and the paramedics were there by the time she arrived. She said that she has always known that if she lost a student, she wouldn’t be able to do her job anymore. She was gripped with fear and worry as she drove to the scene. After Ron was taken to the hospital, it was her job to call his mother to tell her what had happened. Meg described how difficult it was to deliver that news, trying to reassure Ron’s mother that he was going to be ok.
After all four RAs and Meg had spoken, Ron expressed how grateful he was that they all helped him and said that he may not be alive if they hadn’t responded so quickly and effectively. The RAs also shared that they didn’t know that Ron didn’t remember what had happened, so had felt upset when he hadn’t said anything to them when he returned. Shane also expressed appreciation for the job that RAs do. He said that often people think of the RAs as getting in the way of fun, but through this, he and his friends had seen that they are really there to help and had gained a deep appreciation for the work they do. When the group talked about things that could happen next to repair the harms and make sure something like this never happened again, they talked about the negative perception of RAs and Shane, Lizzie, and Ron all agreed to use their social capital in the dorm to improve relationships and respect between residents and RAs. Ron, Shane and Lizzie also all committed to more moderate drinking and to watching out for their friends when they are drinking together. James and Wes reflected that even for them as RAs, this had been a wakeup call to the true danger of excessive drinking and the lasting impact a split second drunk decision can have.
By the end of the conference, everyone involved expressed being grateful for a chance to sit down and talk through what had happened and the impacts. Each person left with a better understanding of others’ experiences and a deeper connection moving forward.
Often in university dorms, there is a strict division between RAs and the other students. Having myself been an RA in college, I often felt like we were seen only as getting in the way of fun, when in reality we were doing the important work of keeping everyone safe. RAs are watching out for alcohol poisoning and getting people the help they need, they are tuned into the mental and emotional states of their residents and responding to issues of self-harm. They are dealing with homesickness, roommate and friendship disputes, stress, substance abuse issues, sexual abuse, eating disorders and every other issue that can arise when hundreds of university students live together, and yet so often the depth of their work is not seen. Likewise, RAs sometimes don’t see their residents as full people, as they encounter them so often in their worst intoxicated, inappropriate, or dangerous moments. Having a chance for the group of students involved in this traumatic incident to sit down together to talk openly and honestly about their experience was transformational for all involved because it gave them a chance to see and hear each other more completely. Having this opportunity to connect genuinely and openly woven into the daily interactions of university life could entirely transform the university community.