Coroner criticizes university for student’s ‘call for help’ before death

A coroner has slammed a university for failing to respond to a student’s ‘call for help’, weeks before he took his own life after failing some of his exams and battling isolation for the Covid-19 lockdown.

Harry Armstrong Evans, 21, a third-year physics and astrophysics student at the University of Exeter, died in June 2021 of asphyxiation at his home in Launceston, Cornwall.

Cornwall Deputy Coroner Guy Davies said there was a ‘complete lack of personal commitment’ from the university to Mr Armstrong Evans and there had been a ‘catalogue of missed opportunities as well as system failures.

Harry Armstrong Evans as a young child with his father Rupert (Family handout/PA)

Less than a month before his death, Mr Armstrong Evans sent an email to his guardian and the welfare department detailing his isolation during the lockdown and his declining mental health, which he said had affected his performance to exams.

Mr Davies described it as a ‘call for help’ but said it did not lead to any direct engagement between the university and Mr Armstrong Evans, or his parents, Rupert and Alice Armstrong Evans.

“This court has heard evidence of the dire consequences of academic pressures on students and the need for universities to provide a safety net for their students,” Mr Davies said.

“This should include social services and the ability to proactively respond to concerns.

“In Harry’s case, the safety net did not work to protect Harry. Concerns have been repeatedly raised by Harry and his parents.

“My main finding will be that the welfare service failed to proactively address these concerns and provide Harry with the necessary support.

“Specifically, there was no engagement with Harry’s family. Indeed, his parents only discovered the extent of his exam failure after his death.

“I further find that Harry’s death was due to an acute mental health crisis which was preceded by a catalog of missed opportunities, as well as system failures, which together led to a lack of results. proactive, which meant Harry couldn’t get any support.”

Harry Armstrong Evans (centre) aged 10 with his siblings (Armstrong Evans family/PA)

Harry Armstrong Evans (centre) aged 10 with his siblings (Family handout/PA)

Mr Davies said he would write a report on preventing future deaths at the university, highlighting his concerns about staff training in suicide prevention, whether the service’s case management system welfare was “fit for purpose” and the ability to provide personal tutor mobile numbers to students.

Speaking after the coroner recorded a finding of suicide, the student’s parents called for ‘Harry’s Law’ to give universities a legal duty of care towards students.

“Harry was a beautiful, kind, intelligent and gentle soul. He never had a crossword with anyone,” they said.

“He was our pride and joy and his passing is all the more tragic as it was entirely preventable.

“For too long, universities have operated in a space where, by law, they are not required to provide a duty of care to young people in their institutions.

“Legally they’re adults but emotionally many aren’t mature enough to handle the suffocating stress of exams and, in Harry’s case, when they raise their hands and ask for help, it’s often too little. , too late.”

Cornwall Coroner’s Court heard that Mr Armstrong Evans’ exam results were good in his first two years, but by year three he was ‘falling off the edge of a cliff’.

In May, he was emailing his tutor and the welfare department about his options for postponing his summer exams and retaking the others, but they said there was nothing in it. which he told them they described as a “red flag”.

His personal guardian, Professor Matthew Browning, said university policy prevented him from discussing his welfare with his parents, but the coroner said there was a ‘misunderstanding’ of that policy and that he had overlooked “exceptional circumstances”.

The inquest heard Ms Armstrong Evans made three attempts to contact the welfare department but no one responded due to computer system failures.

“Consideration should have been given at this stage to informing Harry’s parents of the extent of his exam failure, in order to fully engage Harry’s support network,” Mr Davies said.

“The system failures that effectively removed these concerns meant backup opportunities were missed.”

Harry Armstrong Evans was studying at the University of Exeter at the time of his death (Armstrong Evans family/PA)

Harry Armstrong Evans was studying at the University of Exeter at the time of his death (Family handout/PA)

Mr Davies said the student’s May 28 email required “further and immediate investigation by phone or in person with Harry” and that due to previous safeguarding concerns “required sharing information with his parents” about his school situation.

“This email was a cry for help from Harry and required a proactive response from the welfare department, and a response was needed beyond sending Harry a stream of emails l ‘inviting you to complete an online form,’ he said.

“No one from the University of Exeter contacted Harry. There was a complete lack of personal commitment.

In a statement, Mike Shore-Nye, Registrar at the University of Exeter, said: ‘We are deeply saddened by the death of Harry and the loss of the family.

“We are continually reviewing and improving the wellbeing support we provide based on evidence and learning, including from tragic cases such as Harry’s.

“We will review the Coroner’s detailed findings in this case and ensure that lessons are learned to further improve our support and operations, particularly in areas recommended by the Coroner.”