Monday, August 20, 2018
Education

At Florida Poly, a student suicide and a question: Could it have been prevented?

The only mental health counselor at Florida Polytechnic University got laid off in June. She suspects she was too loud about the ways the troubled university was, in her eyes, failing its students.

Her departure left some 1,400 of them with no on-campus counselor.

On the day Casey Fox was asked to leave campus with her boxes and books, she says she told a Florida Poly official that she feared the abrupt change would lead to the death of a student.

A month later, after others at Florida Poly also raised concerns about upending care for vulnerable students, Fox woke up to the buzzing of university alerts she’d forgotten to turn off. She had 60-something texts.

A student was dead. A student she knew.

Before dawn on Wednesday, soft-spoken, always-smiling senior Kevin Masculine had gone to a concrete bench on the empty campus and shot himself.

"There’s no way to tell if that student would have reached out," Fox said Friday. "There’s no way to know because there was no one there. There was no one on campus to be that person."

• • •

Fox arrived at Florida Poly in Lakeland two summers ago, in 2016. Within a few months, her fellow counselor left and she became the only one.

She knew that mental health on college campuses nationwide was at a crisis point, with emergency visits spiking. And she quickly found that Poly students needed a lot of attention.

Students there are overwhelmingly male, pursuing a high-stress STEM curriculum. Not only are they adjusting to life away from home, but Poly is remote, with its two dorms housed on a cow pasture miles from the nearest restaurant. And the university remains in its infancy, recently graduating its first full class, with student life still in flux.

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As mechanical engineering professor Christina Drake puts it: "We have a campus makeup that is a ticking time bomb" for mental health issues.

Over time, Fox also started to get a sense of inner strife at the fledgling university — turmoil that would only amp up in the months to come.

Now, Wednesday’s tragedy has cratered an already grim mood among faculty and staff on a campus embroiled in layoffs, depleted finances and rock-bottom morale.

Since the end of the spring semester, the university has laid off a string of employees, citing organizational changes. But faculty union members insist the cuts largely target employees who’ve spoken up about ethical issues and other problems.

Fox was one of those.

Poly leaders say there was no lapse in mental health care for students.

But adding to the sense of despair on campus is a question among some about whether Kevin Masculine’s death could have been prevented.

• • •

In February, a "concerned Poly employee" mailed a letter to university trustees at their homes. It described a toxic workplace, overpaid bigwigs and a culture of silence.

The letter also mentioned mental health: "We have one counselor here doing a job meant for three people," it said, putting the campus "dangerously close" to avoidable tragedy.

The university’s president Randy Avent told the Lakeland Ledger: "My concerns are more around the group responsible for the letter."

The school’s audit and compliance unit launched an investigation. Several claims were substantiated in its May report, which found that some top administrators got raises of 20 to 29 percent even as the university’s foundation was $5.9 million in debt.

Avent said the raises brought salaries in line with peers.

The report found that mental health staffing met a state standard of 1 counselor per 1,000 to 1,500 students. But it said Poly could still do more.

The next month, layoffs began.

• • •

Fox worked long weeks, she said, sometimes stacking eight student appointments back-to-back. She sent higher-ups reports on student concerns, like complaints about a lack of activities.

In early 2017, Florida Poly started working with BayCare Behavioral Health to supplement mental health care, which helped Fox’s workload but left her with concerns about outsourcing care — concerns she voiced over time. She was also an active voice in collective bargaining. (The university said this had no bearing on her employment.)

On June 26, her boss walked in with a human resources officer and thanked her for her service. They took the keys to her filing cabinet, she said, then stripped her of access to her calendar and emails.

She said one student wrote to her, "What am I supposed to do when I come back to campus and you’re not there?"

Because of privacy laws, Fox could neither confirm nor deny that Masculine was a client, though current and former university staffers said he was.

• • •

The university said it terminated Fox because she was limited in her ability to serve students. For example, during finals, students would have to compete for her counseling slots. If she got sick, "students’ only option would be to call the hotline" contracted through BayCare, Poly spokesman John McMahon wrote.

So a few months ago, the school decided to change course.

Doubling down on BayCare, leaders felt, offered more flexibility. Poly will pay $42,480 per year for a host of services: the same 24/7 hotline, three in-person counseling sessions per student, emergency counselors, online modules and more.

The school will also hire a case manager, and will no longer have a full-time, on-campus counselor. Instead, a BayCare counselor will visit weekly, holding four to eight hours of counseling sessions.

Depending on needs, students seeking counseling may also secure sessions with BayCare providers off campus within six hours to three days, the school said.

"The transition of the services to BayCare was very deliberately planned to ensure that services were available to the students on an uninterrupted basis," McMahon wrote.

The university emailed the campus to advise of the new services. The message did not say that Fox was no longer employed.

• • •

Two days after Fox’s firing, professor Christina Drake drove to the University of Central Florida, where the state’s higher education board was meeting. She sat down with some Board of Governors members and told them about her concerns, including about mental health care.

She says she told them: "You cannot put students in this high-stress situation and outsource it and say, ‘Hey, call this number.’"

At the board meeting, Drake warned the transition had been too abrupt, with no time to arrange care for patients at risk for suicide. The board thanked her for her comments.

• • •

When Fox left, Masculine didn’t learn about his counselor’s departure from school officials. The university says privacy laws kept it from reaching out to specific students in her care.

Instead, he heard it from Kade Ross, the director of student living, who oversaw Masculine in his role as a resident assistant.

"It honestly didn’t make any sense," Ross said. "She was gone. And that was it."

This June, Ross also left his post at Poly, where he worked for the contractor that operates the dorm. Ross believes school officials pushed him out, unhappy that he had a habit of requesting public records.

He’d gotten close to Masculine, he said, liking him immediately for his contagious smile and sweet selflessness. This week, Ross said he’s been thinking of a moment last August, when the RAs helped with move-in day. Amid all of the pizza and soda and fanfare, he watched Masculine jump into a game of Twister with a total willingness to look ridiculous.

"That first night of college is so awkward. Everyone is hesitant to some extent, and Kevin was willing to just jump in and help them have fun," Ross said. "I just remember that smile on Kevin’s face."

RELATED: When suicide threats come calling: ‘I try to make a connection.’

• • •

The morning of Masculine’s death, as police descended upon campus, Drake sat at her computer, distraught.

She wrote to the state’s top higher education leader, chancellor Marshall Criser: "One of our worst nightmares for our students has occurred on our campus and it was likely something that was preventable."

Begging him as a mother and a faculty member, she asked him to "please investigate and hold the university accountable so that we might not encounter such a horrible circumstance again."

On Friday, Criser said in an email to the Tampa Bay Times that his office has contacted Poly leaders to ensure assistance for Masculine’s family, as well as the broader campus. He said the board will keep up its commitment to making sure all students have access to care.

"My heart goes out to Kevin Masculine and his family," Criser wrote. "Our office is continuing to gather information on the specific situation."

Masculine’s family in Jacksonville did not return a call seeking comment.

Rhodes Conover, a May graduate who has spoken out about student grievances at Poly, said the decision to lay off Fox disgusted him.

"I don’t know if I can look another administrator in the eye. My blood boils," he said. "They were specifically warned about the risk. … It’s unbelievable to me that that was the choice they made."

• • •

Masculine impressed Brandon Dupuis right away, back when they were becoming RAs together. Dupuis, 20, thought Masculine was extremely smart — genius-level on an IQ test smart. Best of all, Masculine seemed to understand him in a way others didn’t.

They rode longboards together across campus. Dupuis learned that Masculine loved hiking with his siblings, cooking with his dad. This spring, they got into bowling, buying balls and shoes.

Nothing dramatic had happened recently in Masculine’s life, not that Dupuis could recall. His friend had been as kind and positive as ever. But one thing, at least, had changed.

"The people that were trained to help him were removed, like Casey, our counselor, and Kade," Dupuis said this week. "They couldn’t be right here anymore. I don’t think that was necessarily the cause, but I don’t think that helped, either."

Masculine had told Dupuis about how dark things could get for him in his worst moments.

So when Dupuis heard this week that a student died by suicide, he knew. He knew even before he tried calling his friend with no answer.

Contact Claire McNeill at [email protected] or (727) 893-8321.

     
   
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