Lives Lost, But Not Forgotten
UB community remembers students who have passed
Published: Friday, April 27, 2012
Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11
Around midnight on March 4, 2009, Andrea Zlotowitz was doing laundry in Spaulding when she heard an awful, deafening sound – as if something had hit the pavement outside. She walked into the tunnel of the Ellicott Complex and found a body on the ground.
To her horror, it was the body of Jonah Dreskin, a fellow UB student and her childhood pal. She called University Police. She also called his family.
“It was weird because it looked like Jonah, but it didn’t look like Jonah,” Zlotowitz said. “I was freaking out. I remembered his parents’ house number, [called], and said: ‘Something is wrong with Jonah; he’s hurt, I don’t really know what’s going on.’”
Jonah died at Millard Fillmore Suburban Hospital a few hours later. Police reports say he had fallen from the seventh floor of the Spaulding Quadrangle tower.
To this day, no one really knows why.
Police have closed Jonah’s case and classified his death as undeterminable.
Jonah would have walked with the class of 2012 at UB’s commencement services this May.
Dealing with death
Several other UB students have died in recent years, and their legacies, too, are remembered.
Michael Israel died in June 2011 after a long battle with prescription drug abuse. He suffered from Crohn’s disease and depression related to his struggles with the illness. He shot himself. Israel would have started his junior year this fall.
In January 2010, Nicholas Orrange was killed in a one-car accident off campus. He was a senior at the time and also the Special Interest Services and Hobbies coordinator for the Student Association.
Just over a month ago, junior Kevin Breen was killed in a car accident driving back to UB after spring break. Breen was a member of the ROTC program through Canisius, and his peers in the program initially had trouble coping with the sudden loss.
Although students don’t like to think about it – or maybe they’re simply not aware – four to 10 students pass away in any given year at UB, said BarbaraRicotta, the associate vice president for Student Affairs, who is among the first UB officials called when students die. She serves as the liaison between the university, families, and the surrounding community.
Often, as with Jonah’s death, the calls come in the middle of the night.
“I hate it,” Ricotta said. “It’s the hardest part of my job. There’s kind of a joke among my colleagues that the best part about my job is that nobody else wants it because nobody else wants to do that. People ask me sometimes how I keep from crying; I say I don’t.”
The night of Jonah’s death, Ricotta met with Katie, Jonah’s sister who was also a UB student. She sent a UPD officer to check in on his roommates, and she met with Jonah’s parents at the airport in the morning.
Ricotta serves as the go-between for parents and the university. She advises parents how to collect their child’s things and how to take care of canceling classes, bills, and health insurance. She often helps parents obtain their child’s degree if he or she was close to graduation. She is there to answer questions families may have, and she is available to answer calls at all times.
“We can talk at three in the morning or three in the afternoon,” Ricotta said. “I’ll call you back.”
She and her staff not only deal with on-campus deaths, but every death that affects the UB community.
“It could be a car accident off campus, could be a death at home,” Ricotta said. “There’s nothing special about our population, except it’s big, and unfortunately our students pass away.”
Ricotta said the number of students who die can range anywhere from four to 10 – this year, six students died; in 2011, four students; in 2010 and 2009, nine students; and in 2008, eight students.
Ricotta estimated that almost 95 percent of student deaths occur off campus, and she cited car accidents as the No. 1 cause of student death. Suicide is the second-leading cause, according to Ricotta.
UPD is, in most cases, the first outlet to notify families that their child has died. Ricotta said it is often best that the families hear the news in person from a police officer rather than on the phone from her – a voice that families may not trust or believe.
But Ricotta remembers a time she had to notify a family whose son had died of a heart condition on campus. It took three phone calls – full of screams and hang-ups – to convince the family that she was not a prank caller and she was truly sorry for their loss.
“I actually waited an hour before calling them back, after the police had come to the house,” Ricotta said. “I remember hanging up the phone, and I just sat in my bedroom and cried.”
UPD is also involved in all on-campus student deaths; Jonah’s death was one of the biggest cases Chief Gerald Schoenle has seen in the six years he’s been at UB. UPD and its investigators spoke to over 80 people in the months after the death, trying to understand how a young, lively, and happy kid could end up falling out the window.
Jonah had fallen out of the window just hours after he and his friends received a citation for smoking marijuana outside of the Millard Fillmore Academic Center. UPD could find no evidence that the incidents were directly related.