UL students, faculty criticize handling of student’s suicide

A group of young people sits on the floor holding signs.
Students from the University of Louisiana hold a silent protest at Cypress Lake to protest the university's handling of an on-campus suicide last week, April 15, 2024. Photo by Brad Kemp/The Advocate

Editor’s Note: This story includes discussion of suicide. If you are in crisis, please call, text or chat with the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988, or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting TALK to 741741.

Students and faculty members gathered Monday on UL Lafayette’s campus to protest the university’s handling of the public death of Basil Brown, a UL student who died by suicide on campus April 7.

In the week since Brown’s death, his friends, fellow students and some faculty members have criticized the university’s handling of the situation, arguing that opportunities to save his life were missed and that the university’s actions after his death failed to protect the wellbeing of others. 

The coalition to call for change at the university is led by current and former students, many of whom, like Brown, are members of the LGBTQ community.

Brown was found near the Olivier Parking Garage on McKinley Street that Sunday evening and was pronounced dead an hour and a half later due to multiple blunt force injuries, according to a coroner’s report. The death has been ruled a suicide by the coroner’s office.

On April 6, Brown posted a picture on his public Instagram account that featured a caption seemingly announcing his plans, together with a list of three people he accused of having raped him. 

Friends of Brown’s said that a welfare check had been called in on him, but that no action was taken to hospitalize him or otherwise place him under supervision. 

“I don’t know the exact details of what happened after the welfare check, because even his closest friends can’t really pin [that] down,” said Wren, a fellow UL student and friend of Brown’s, who preferred to give only their first name to protect their family’s privacy. “But I’ve heard reports that he wasn’t taken to a hospital.”

The UL Police Department received a call from someone informing it that Brown had made a post on Snapchat where he “commented on suicide,” and officers went to perform a welfare check on Brown, according to ULPD Public Information Officer Sgt. Lance Frederick. Officers questioned Brown about the post, Frederick said, but he denied any knowledge of the post and said he did not have suicidal thoughts.

As such, police’s hands were tied, according to Frederick. “Louisiana law requires that law enforcement must possess a written order from a physician, psychologist, or coroner to take someone into custody in reference to a mental health evaluation,” Frederick said. “Without proof of the social media post, Brown’s willingness to cooperate, or a written order, officers were unable to take Brown to a hospital or mental health facility.”

Wren and others said they would have wished for a more consequential response. “Everyone wants to think that when you call the police, they’re gonna do something,” Wren said. 

The university said it could not release information on any formal complaints filed against the three individuals Brown accused of rape in his last Instagram post before his death, citing privacy concerns. 

“The university is investigating the allegation, but does not comment on personnel matters,” spokesperson Eric Maron said in an emailed statement Monday. At least one of the accused is a faculty member at the School of Music & Performing Arts, where Brown was a student.

Wren, who identifies as non-binary and uses they/them pronouns, said they weren’t sure whether Brown ever filed an official report prior to his Instagram post, but said they wouldn’t be surprised if he hadn’t.

“I can say that the university does not handle sexual assault allegations well,” Wren said. “I know several people that were sexually assaulted on campus by a student or by someone who was employed by the university. And they tried to report it, and the university did nothing.”

UL has previously come under fire for its handling of sexual assault cases, most prominently in a case that is still making its way through federal courts. 

In that case, the plaintiff is a former UL student and one of six women to accuse fellow student Victor Daniel Silva of sexual misconduct between 2014 and 2020. Among others, she sued the University of Louisiana System, which includes UL Lafayette and Louisiana Tech University, and the LSU System.

The lawsuit contends the three universities knew about sexual assault reports against Silva but failed to take appropriate action, allowing him to shuffle between campuses and victimize several female students with few consequences. 

In Brown’s case, his transgender identity may have compounded the issue, said Dr. Arial Moore, a sexual health educator and adjunct professor at UL who said she was concerned about the safety of other students.

“I am concerned about the entire student body being with these people, this person,” Moore said of the accused. Further, Moore wondered whether the university’s relative silence on Brown’s death was related to their gender identity and the allegations made against faculty. “Either they’re not speaking because of the sexual assault claims or because Basil is trans,” Moore contemplated.

When Brown died, several students said the university failed to communicate properly by not sending out a notification to avoid the area, failing to properly inform professors ahead of Monday classes and sending out an email many of them found to be inappropriately vague.

Jeanne Meaux, a fellow band member of Brown’s at the School of Music, said they walked by as crews cleaned up the scene of his death near the parking garage where many students, including Meaux, regularly parked.

Another student, sophomore Brianna Mills, said she warned a friend not to walk by the parking garage after seeing Brown’s body. Mills said she sought out on-campus counseling to process what she saw. Both Meaux and Mills said they didn’t understand why no emergency alert was sent out to students, a common procedure in which students and faculty receive notifications on their phone and via email.

“I didn’t need to see that,” Meaux said. “No one who was just innocently walking from the cafeteria should have seen that.” 

Maron said UL follows ENS guidelines that call for an alert if a serious crime, a natural disaster or a man-made emergency occurs that poses an immediate threat to the health and safety of the campus community.

In this case, Maron said, there was “no immediate threat to health or safety.”

The area was blocked off with yellow police caution tape within minutes of the incident occurring, Maron noted. A secondary outer perimeter was also blocked off with yellow police caution tape during the investigation to expand the area.

Natalie Romero, a friend of Brown’s who worked as a receptionist at the dorm across from the parking tower, the dorm Brown had lived in, said she learned about the death from students walking into the dorm. 

When she realized it was Brown who had died, Romero said she broke down in tears and left her desk at the reception to collect herself. She was provided with a counselor that same night, which she said was helpful, but wished she had received more guidance on how to advise students at the dorm of the gruesome scene outside. 

“I wasn’t really given much information from higher-ups how to handle the situation,” Romero said. “I wasn’t really given anything at all.”

When the university sent out an email regarding Brown’s death later that day, many students and faculty found the tone and content to be excessively vague and lackluster. Many were especially critical that the email did not include any mention of suicide and hinted at other unspecified recent losses within the campus community.

Any mention of suicide was withheld out of respect for the family, Maron said, although he could not confirm whether the university had received explicit directives from Brown’s family to withhold the information at the time.

When a similar incident occurred at Southeastern University in Hammond in November, the school took a different approach, sending out emergency notifications to students telling them to avoid the area, and later releasing a statement mourning the loss of a student, although that statement also did not mention suicide.

Pacing in front of the cypress trees rising out of the campus swamp Monday afternoon, students called for more transparency from the university, better counseling resources, changes to the emergency notification system and changes to the way welfare checks are conducted. 

“We don’t expect the world to stop,” Malek Richard, one of the organizers, said. “But we do expect the bare minimum and the bare minimum is taking accountability.”