The University of Houston plans to spend $38 million on a series of safeguards and renovations to Agnes Arnold Hall, the campus building that has been largely closed since March after two students committed suicide earlier this year by jumping from its upper-level balconies.
University president Renu Khator announced the funding allocation in a Tuesday email to faculty and staff in which she addressed recommendations made by two task forces that were created in the aftermath of the deaths. The task force that studied the future of Agnes Arnold Hall, a five-story building with open-air hallways that historically houses more than 450 classes per week, called for temporary screens to cover an outdoor stairwell as well as the balconies on each of the top four stories and sky bridges to an adjacent building, so it can be reopened for the upcoming fall semester.
University spokesperson Chris Stipes said the lower basement level of Agnes Arnold Hall, where the deceased students were found, will remain closed for the fall 2023 semester to allow "more time for our students to heal and recover."
"As part of our plan, we are committed to reopening Agnes Arnold Hall this coming fall, with security measures in place," Stipes said. "Additionally, we will be screening in the balconies on the upper level before the semester begins."
As part of a three-phase project to be completed over four years, the task force also recommended the installation of permanent security screening at Agnes Arnold Hall along with enhancing security protocols and limiting and better controlling entryways into the building. The plan also calls for beautifying the building's perimeter fence, perhaps with an art installation that focuses on mental health, and formally renaming it as Agnes Cullen Arnold Hall to reflect the full name of the building namesake, a UH regent during the 1950s and early ‘60s.
Citing the recommendations of a separate task force on mental health promotion and suicide prevention, Khator wrote Tuesday that UH would launch an internal awareness campaign in the fall to promote available mental health resources while also providing mental health and wellness information to students' families. Additionally, the university will designate and design spaces throughout its campus to be used for meditation, mindfulness and reflection, with all new buildings at UH to incorporate those spaces.
UH also had three other universities around the country review its Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) program. Based on their findings, Khator wrote that UH plans to add at least three college-based mental health counselors, increase CAPS staffing through internships and community networks, allocate space for the program in the university's student center and secure an outside vendor to provide around-the-clock mental health services to students.
Regarding Agnes Arnold Hall, also the site of a student suicide in 2017, the task force wrote in its May report that it considered the feasibility of demolishing the building because of its "contagion legacy" and the trauma associated with the most recent deaths. But doing so would cost between $10-$15 million, with the cost of constructing a replacement building estimated to be at least $167 million while also requiring approval from state lawmakers, which could take years to obtain, according to the task force report.
Utilizing the existing building while making the proposed updates – along with mechanical, electrical and plumbing renovations that already had been planned – would be far less costly, according to the task force, which also wrote that there is a continued interest among faculty to use Agnes Arnold Hall.
Still, the task force recommended that ongoing mental health support be provided to the students and staff who will "occupy the building in the days, weeks and months ahead."
"The trauma incurred by the student suicides on the various members of the university community and the students' families will linger for many people," the task force wrote.
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