On Dec. 13, 2013, senior Olivia Birk was fired from her position as peer advisor on Second West Ashton. Birk said she was fired after two students contacted Residence Life with concerns about her mental health and the possibility of her committing suicide.
Birk said she understands why the students were concerned but feels that her removal from the floor was rushed, damaged the community of the floor and falsely presented her as mentally unstable. She also feels that the handling of the circumstances leading up to her removal could perpetuate a fear of talking about mental health.
“It suggests that student leaders must be perfect, that they should have no room for improvement,” Birk said. “But I think the best leaders are flawed.”
In an email obtained by The Falcon, Dean of Students for Community Joel Perez said that the Residence Life staff involved in the decision to fire Birk believed that it had been made with Birk’s best interest in mind.
Birk said that she has suffered from anxiety issues in the past. Since coming to SPU, she said that she has taken steps to control and manage her anxiety through counseling and medication.
Birk said that she has been seeing an SPU-appointed counselor for more than a year. Additionally, she said that she has been receiving medication to help control her anxiety through a nurse practitioner at the SPU Health Center.
At the time of her hiring last March, Birk said that Residence Life was aware of her anxiety issues, that she was taking medication and that she was participating in regular counseling sessions.
Residence Life staff and PAs who were contacted by The Falcon declined to comment. Her counselor declined as well. The resident who first contacted Residence Life could not be reached for comment.
Additionally, Birk’s counselor and the Student Health Center said they couldn’t confirm or deny ever seeing Birk due to confidentiality laws. According to Birk, here’s what happened and some of the questions and concerns that were raised.
At noon on Dec. 10 last year, Birk awoke to the sound of knocking at her door.
“It was a stressful week… I was on call the night before and had broken up with my girlfriend that weekend,” Birk said. “So I was sleeping in.”
She checked her phone and saw that she had missed several calls from a Residence Life coordinator. Throwing on some clothes, she opened her door and saw the worried face of the on-call RLC.
“He told me to get some shoes on, that we needed to talk at the RLC office,” Birk said. “He said that he had received a call and was concerned for my safety.”
Birk believes that the safety concerns arose from her use of a mannequin as a means to cope with stress.
“I always use a mannequin to help tell my story,” Birk said. “I point to the pictures about my parents’ divorce on the back … to the fork that represents that the first time I saw my parents fight was at the dinner table.”
Birk has been using her mannequin as a way to express her emotional states since her senior year of high school.
“It’s like drawing a sad picture or listening to music,” Birk said. “It’s a therapeutic way of dealing with my thoughts and feelings.”
The mannequin started as a senior project. Over the years, Birk said it has turned into much more. After her high school graduation, Birk continued to use the mannequin to help handle the social, academic and emotional stresses of college. Often, she removes or alters the appearance of the mannequin to express what is happening in her life.
At the beginning of this school year, Birk had decided that she was going to publicly announce her sexuality to the floor using her mannequin. Birk said that she doesn’t identify with any specific sexual orientation. Though she said about two-thirds of the floor already knew about her sexual orientation, most didn’t know about the mannequin.
When she started dating her ex-girlfriend in April of last year, Birk gave her the mannequin’s right hand as part of a collage. Birk’s ex-girlfriend returned the hand after they broke up. Birk said that after getting the hand back, she wrapped it in gauze and wrote William Butler Yeats’ poem “When You Are Old,” on top of the gauze.
“I hope someday to take the gauze off,” Birk said. “Then I will re-collage the hand and give it away again.”
On the night of her breakup, Birk returned to her room and placed a paper trash bag over the mannequin’s head and tied it to the neck with twine and a heart-shaped necklace that her ex-girlfriend had given her. She also removed the mannequin’s arms. She tied the twine into a noose around the mannequin’s neck. She tied the necklace loosely on top of the noose.
“After the breakup, I felt that part of my identity had been severed,” Birk said. “I took off her arms to say that that part of me had died… The bag was to express how I was feeling inside.”
Hutton Sutherland, a freshman on Second West, was in Birk’s room watching while she rearranged her mannequin.
“I’m an art person, so I liked the mannequin,” Sutherland said. “It was cool to see her life in front of us.”
Sutherland said that she would frequently visit Birk in her room and study the different symbols and words on the mannequin and try to depict what they meant to Birk.
“It was a cool conversation piece, a way to get to know her,” Sutherland said. “It was a part of her… If you knew Olivia, you probably knew about the mannequin.”
Birk said that after seeing the mannequin the following day, a resident became concerned and asked her how she was doing. Birk told the resident that she was hurt but fine. Later, the resident asked again. Birk gave her the same response. Birk decided to dismantle the mannequin immediately after talking with the resident.
“I realized that some of the residents might be troubled or confused by [the mannequin],” Birk said. “If it was freaking people out, I didn’t want it up.”
Birk said that during fall quarter, she had had conversations about mental health with the resident who later contacted Residence life.
“Because of those conversations, she was apparently concerned for my mental health,” Birk said. “But she didn’t ask me anything about if I was suicidal, if I was emotionally stable… She just asked how I was doing.”
Birk said that this resident later contacted Residence Life with concerns about Birk possibly committing suicide. While on rounds later that week, Birk made comments about her breakup to a PA who later contacted Residence Life with concerns about her emotional stress level.
At roughly 1 p.m. on Dec. 10, Birk and the on-call RLC walked out of the Student Counseling Center. If there is a concern about mental health, Residence Life protocol requires the student to be taken into the counseling center to talk with a counselor. Birk said that she met with her counselor. Birk said that during their meeting they talked about the nuances of suicide and how most people respond to it with panic.
“He said that as a health care professional, he understands that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions, that he didn’t think it was a big deal,” Birk said. “I explained to him what the noose represented… He said that he thought that it was a misunderstanding.”
Birk said that Residence Life never attempted to meet with her counselor or her nurse practitioner. Birk said that at her request, her counselor agreed to reach out to Residence Life Coordinator Matt Cox and explain how Birk used the mannequin as an emotional outlet. The next morning, Birk met with Cox to talk about his meeting with her counselor. During the meeting, Cox mentioned that they would have to do a follow-up with Director of Residence Life Gabe Jacobsen the next day.
On Dec. 12, Birk and Cox had the first of two meetings with Jacobsen. During this meeting, Birk said that it wasn’t clear if her position was in jeopardy until she asked Jacobsen if her job was on the line. Jacobsen told Birk that he would tell her if she was going to be fired before she left. Birk was flying home to Colorado the following afternoon.
The final decision
On the morning of Dec. 13, Birk and Cox met with Jacobsen for the second time. In the meeting, Jacobsen told Birk that she was fired. Birk received her official letter of termination via email on Dec. 16. The letter cited the mannequin and the comments Birk had made to the PA as the main reasons for termination. The letter explained that the public display of her mannequin had resulted in a confrontation by one of her residents who was concerned for her safety and the possibility that Birk was going to hurt herself.
The letter, obtained by The Falcon, read, “The level of struggle that became apparent to us in this situation is high enough that it does not seem healthy for you to be working through the current issues you are dealing with while carrying the demands and pressures of the PA role. Our hope is that you will have extra time and space to give more immediate attention to your own well-being in the upcoming quarters.”
On Dec. 17, Birk sent a letter of appeals to Jacobson regarding the decision to fire her.
An email response to Birk from Perez obtained by The Falcon reads, “Thank you for you email and your well-thought out letter in regards to the decision to remove you as PA. After speaking to others about this matter the decision is not one that can be appealed… I want to make sure you understand the decision will not be reversed.”
Over Christmas break, Birk said she talked to Cox on the phone. Birk said Cox told her that he had talked with only two of the women on Second West before Residence Life made a decision. Birk said Cox told her that his conversations with the two residents didn’t last more than 20 minutes each. Birk also said that after talking with residents after returning from winter break, one of the residents told Residence Life that Birk’s sexual orientation had caused tension between who knew and who didn’t. She said that she questions how Residence Life was able to determine that her role as a PA was compromised when they only talked with two of her residents and one of her healthcare providers.
“Two residents isn’t a good determinant of the whole floor,” Birk said. “Honestly, I just feel like they inferred a lot based on just a few things.”
Birk said that after getting fired she was told that she had to be moved off the floor before students returned from winter break.
Birk’s termination letter, obtained by The Falcon, reads, “Your RLC, Matt Cox, will be in contact with you to help with the details of finding another housing placement.”
Birk said that she received no help.
“I was homeless and couch surfing for about a month and half,” Birk said. “They told me that my RLC would be in contact with me to help with the details about housing placement… It never happened.”
She currently lives with two friends in an apartment on West Emerson Street.
“[Residence Life] said that this decision was made in my best interest … but I’ve honestly struggled to feed myself for the past few months,” Birk said. “I struggle to pay rent; people have had to buy me groceries… I don’t understand how that could be true.”
Additionally, Birk said that she has spent more time in the Counseling Center this quarter than she ever has before.
An English major, Birk said that she had saved over $2,000 over the course of several years to finance her post-graduation goal of teaching English to students in South Korea. Since her termination, she has spent all $2,000 on rent and living expenses.
After her termination, Birk published a post on the Second West Facebook page explaining what had happened. Shortly after reading the post, Sutherland and 17 of the 35 Second West residents signed and emailed a petition to Jacobsen protesting Birk’s termination.
The petition read, “We understand the circumstances leading to [Birk’s] termination… We do not agree with the decision to fire her because of it. We love our PA and believe that taking her away from our floor will do more harm than good.”
The letter also said that they believed that the majority of the floor’s opinions had been misrepresented.
The email response from Perez, obtained by The Falcon, reads, “I want to let you know that this decision was not an easy one and that Gabe Jacobsen, the Director of Residence, and the RLCs wrestled with it extensively. We really believe this decision has Olivia’s best interest in mind.”
The letter instructed residents to voice their concerns during at upcoming meeting between the floor and their RLCs.
“At the meeting, they said if we had questions, we could ask,” Second West freshman Thu Pham said. “But it felt like they avoided every question… Like they were using confidentiality as an excuse not to explain.”
Pham said that she feels that the floor is much more divided than it had been previously.
“Before, we were pretty together. I felt like we were a family,” Pham said. “When we got back … half the floor wanted to talk about it, the other half didn’t.”
Second West was without a PA for two weeks before the position was filled.
Birk is currently keeping the mannequin in a storage facility. She said that she hopes to bring it out of storage soon and continue using it to cope with her anxiety.
“I hope people will come to understand mental health better because of what happened to me,” Birk said. “Ultimately, I just wonder… Was this the best for me and the floor?”
Staff reporter Celina Kituku also contributed reporting in this story.
Two names have been removed from this article’s original version published on April 16th – one because of privacy concerns, and the other to honor a promise of confidentiality made to the source before publication.