Students, administrator respond to lawsuit against university and counselor by W&L student

The school addressed the lawsuit for the first time in an email to the campus community, saying the university was unable to share information regarding an individual student or active litigation.


Posters and banners that said “Suicide is NOT something to hide” were hung up around campus this week. Photo by Joe O’Connor, ’22.

Hannah Denham

A banner was hung in the lobby of Elrod Commons on Sunday evening that read, “Suicide is NOT something to hide.” Forty-five posters were posted around campus with the same message.

Mickie Brown, ‘21, and Coleman Richard, ‘20, said they put the posters around campus Sunday night. They wanted to spark campus discussion about students’ mental health in light of an active lawsuit against the university and counselor Rallie Snowden for medical malpractice and negligence by former student Kionte Burnette.

By 10:45 on Monday morning, the banner and most of the posters had disappeared, Brown said.

Sidney Evans, the vice-president for student affairs and dean of students, said in an email that the administration removed the banner and posters in Commons. University policy says that student affairs and Kelsey Goodwin, director of student activities, have the right to remove any flyers or banners “deemed inappropriate, not associated with recognized student organizations, or which advertise events for which the date has expired.”

“While well-intended, some messages can actually be triggering for students and others struggling with mental health issues, so it is important to work with staff who have expertise in this area,” Evans said. “If students would like to post materials promoting mental health awareness and suicide prevention, we encourage them to work with Jan Kaufman, our Director of Health Promotion, in addition to Kelsey.”

Neither student knew Kionte personally, they said. But Richard said he also briefly played football here and has dealt with mental health issues in the past

“It was more a relation to his struggle,” he said.

“One of their claims to fame is that we have an honor system. There’s a certain level of responsibility put on us,” Richard said. “I feel like that same responsibility isn’t being put on administration to let us know as a community when things go wrong.”

Brown said the posters and banner were still up when he went to his 9:45 class on Monday morning, but by the time he was out of class an hour later, they were gone.

“It felt like they were just spitting in the face of the message we’re trying to push,” Richard said.

Richard said they put up posters on bulletin boards in Commons, all the halls on the Colonnade except for Washington Hall, the Science Center, the Center for Global Learning, Leyburn Library and Graham-Lees and Gaines dorms. He said they specifically left out Huntley Hall because of the building’s rule that doesn’t allow posters because of potential wall paint damage.

“It means a lot to me to see this thing get covered up and not talked about,” Brown said. “If there’s anyone who’s struggling with suicide who is reading this, please know you are loved and things will get better if you reach out and talk to people about what you’re going through.”

On Tuesday morning, Jan. 15, Evans addressed the lawsuit for the first time in an email to the campus community.

In the email, she said the university was unable to share information regarding an individual student or active litigation.

“The health and well-being of all of our students is paramount to us, and we are continually evaluating the services that we provide students in response to their complex and evolving needs,” Evans said in the email. “I have confidence in the professionalism and compassion of our staff members, who work extremely hard to provide exceptional resources in this area.”

She listed available resources for students, including the counseling center, the student health center, class deans, Residential Life staff, Peer Counselors and public safety officers.

Director of Public Safety Ethan Kipnes did not respond to a request for comment.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline (1-800-273-8255) provides a 24/7, toll-free hotline and is available for anyone in suicidal crisis or emotional distress.