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University Of Houston Deaths Reignite Questions About Real Estate's Role In Preventing Suicide


Two student suicides this semester have led thousands of University of Houston students to demand changes to the design of an on-campus academic building and reopened the question of how to respond when a building becomes a draw for self-destructive actions.

Agnes Arnold Hall at the University of Houston

University of Houston President Renu Khator said on Twitter Monday that university officials believe two student deaths, one Feb. 15 and one March 20, were suicides. Both students are believed to have jumped from the top of Agnes Arnold Hall, the second and third student suicides at the building since 2017.

“While we have shut down activities, including classes, in Agnes Arnold for now, we still need to sit down with students, faculty and staff in the coming weeks to seriously consider our options in regard to the building,” Khator said on Twitter.

Madeline Statkewicz, a Ph.D. candidate in atmospheric science at UH, according to her Instagram, created an online petition Monday to call for the retrofitting of the building. 

Agnes Arnold Hall, named for a former board of governors member, is the only building on campus with open verandas on each of its six floors. Statkewicz argues on that given ongoing construction on campus, enhancing safety at the building is within the university’s financial reach and part of its obligation to protect students.

“Continual refusal to modify the building as it currently exists makes the university not only negligent but complicit in these students’ deaths,” the petition states.

The petition had more than 2,500 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon and was gaining more by the hour. Signers include Nancy Young, who said she is the chair of the history department, located within the building, and Cassie Carroll, who identified herself as the sister of the student who died Monday.

“I want immediate change so no other student in a similar mental state does the same,” Carroll wrote in the petition comments.

Young, and many others, have also called for better mental health care on campus. The wait time at the university's Counseling and Psychological Services need to be “much shorter,” she said. Others took to Twitter to complain CAPS is “underfunded, understaffed, and not prioritized by the university.”

It’s not the first time the design of a building has been identified as a contributing factor to suicides, posing a question to architects and other real estate professionals of how to handle it. 

Four people killed themselves at the Vessel, a honeycomb-shaped spiral of staircases in Manhattan’s Hudson Yards, within the first year and a half it was open. The fourth to die was a 14-year-old boy in July 2021, after the structure had reopened with extra security personnel, signs offering suicide prevention information and a new rule that no one could go in the structure alone, the Associated Press reported. The Vessel has remained closed since.

According to The New York Times, developer Related Cos. resisted the architect’s retrofit design of higher barriers to prevent people from jumping. In August 2022, ABC7 reported that it appeared the Vessel was installing safety netting to protect people who jump. 

A project installing steel netting 20 feet below and extending 20 feet out along both sides of the entire expanse of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco should be completed this year, according to AP. The Golden Gate Bridge is the place with the highest number of suicides in the U.S., averaging about 30 a year.

Universities have confronted the issue before, too. When New York University struggled with a number of suicides at its indoor atrium within the university's 12-story Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, installing plexiglass barricades failed to prevent another suicide, per AP. It then upgraded to perforated aluminum screens to enclose the crosswalks.