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University response to Declan Sullivan tragedy

Michael Martin | Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Careful analysis of the report reveals that a low ranking official — with insufficient information on the severity of the weather — authorized an action. Lacking severe weather protocol or senior advisement, the low ranking official’s clearance resulted in a Notre Dame student dying. In official statements following the tragic event, Notre Dame’s administration publically committed to taking any and all steps to prevent a tragedy like this from ever happening again.

Unfortunately, the above description aptly portrays separate events that led to Notre Dame students dying. In January 1991, the Midwest was in the midst of a severe blizzard. After a swim meet in Chicago, a call to the University was made requesting advisement on whether the women’s swim team should wait out the snow in Chicago overnight or come home to South Bend. The team was instructed to come home. Shortly before arrival the bus hit an ice patch and repeatedly flipped. Colleen Hipp and Megan Beeler perished, while Haley Scott was temporarily paralyzed.

In 2010, unnamed football team managers viewed a weather service report during a day of high winds. Their untrained analysis led them to conclude that the conditions were “unremarkable.” They were further aware that the staff preferred outdoor practice, and they chose to have Declan Sullivan film practice from a scissor lift. With that decision, approximately 20 years later Notre Dame suffered a second preventable tragedy.

On Notre Dame’s Snow Day in February this year, Business Professor Jim Davis left his house prior to the University announcing school cancellation. Professor Davis’ trip to school took in excess of an hour due to icy road conditions. He made it to school to find no students and travelled home safely that night.

My questions to the University are, “What specific improvements to the school’s severe weather action plan are being made to engage the challenges caused by South Bend’s often adverse weather conditions?”

“Does having tragedy only once every 20 years, with countless risks taken in between, represent a significant enough savings to justify not spending the funding required to put in place a system protecting the students and employees of the University?”

At this moment, I have not seen a satisfactory answer to the first question. Moreover, I don’t believe the administration or anyone believes the answer to the second question should be, “Yes.”

My suggestions are simple, expensive and implementable.

— Create a position or further broaden the responsibilities of an existing Campus Severe Weather Advisor.

— Qualify this advisor as a safety expert pertaining to severe weather and severe weather activities.

— Put in place parameters to describe “severe weather.” Have these parameters audited to ensure they are sufficient.

— Task the weather advisor with careful daily analysis of weather conditions. During periods of severe weather, have this expert utilize technology to communicate advisement on best practices to students of the University.

— Debrief the expert immediately on University sanctioned activities whenever weather classified as “severe” arises. These activities will include sports and sports travel, campus events, construction and, likely, much more.

— Require University endorsed activities to submit risk mitigation plans during severe weather.

— Have Advisor or advisors review and sign off on all submitted plans as sound.

— Put in place clear consequences when process is not followed.

Certainly, these steps provide only a basic framework. However, the steps do create an actual strategy to better ensure this type of incident “never happens again.” Without a plan, Notre Dame’s promises for prevention ring hollow, and future students are at a greater risk of something like this happening again.

Michael Martin

grad student

off campus

April 19