Stress, Suicide, and the Savannah College of Art and Design

How an art school in coastal Georgia is killing its students — and why no one is talking about it.

I was laying in bed. It was in either December or January of 2016. I got a call from an area code that I didn’t recognize — from Savannah, Georgia.

A kindly elderly woman on the other line informed me that I had been accepted to the Savannah College of Art and Design. I ran out of my room to tell my mom, watching television on the couch. I forked over the $500 enrollment fee a couple months later.

I’m a Southern girl, who had been in and out of Atlanta all her life. I went to the opening of the Georgia Aquarium when I was 7 or 8. And I can remember, from when I was a little girl, wondering what that big building was, right as you were leaving Atlanta on I-24. It was clean, and pretty, with lots of plants. Elevated above the highway, I always thought it looked like a castle, even though it was clearly an academic building. It was SCAD’s Atlanta campus, and its facade was a fixture of my childhood trips to the city.

The summer before I started my freshman year in Savannah, my family visited Tybee Island for vacation. We spent one day of our five-day getaway in downtown Savannah. I looked at all the live oaks, the moss, the old houses; it was beautiful. I couldn’t wait to come back for good. I could see my future, a career in the arts. Passion projects completed. I was going to live my dream.

Halfway into the fall quarter of 2018, the start of my second year, I was huddled outside of my dorm in Oglethorpe House. It was around eight o’clock AM. I was shaking all over. My phone was broken, so my roommate let me use her phone to call my mom. I told her that I needed to leave immediately. I hadn’t slept since Sunday. It was Wednesday, October 17th, three days before my twentieth birthday.

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Poetter Hall, at SCAD Savannah

It’s tough to remember a lot of specific details about those last days at SCAD. I remember going to an urgent care clinic to get antidepressants. It was right near The Hive, where I stayed my freshman year and where many of the people I met the year before were residing. I tried to avoid the gaze of students waiting for the bus on the side of the road. I do remember crying almost constantly.

I knew that it would be tough from the start. It was a lot of work; that’s how it is at any art school. In my first year, I adapted to the lack of sleep, working on drawings all night, getting charcoal under my fingernails. It was hard work, but I enjoyed it. I made some friends, I got a part-time job on campus. As the quarters progressed, it got tougher and tougher.

I kept hearing a popular phrase among students. “Sleep Comes After Death”. A fun play on the college’s acronym, and the amount of sleep we all lose. What struck me about the phrase is that it wasn’t just the students saying so; my professors would jokingly say it in between lectures. I don’t know when or how it started, but I thought a lot about that phrase in the days and months following my withdrawal.

It unsettles me because three students died since the beginning of the 2018 academic year. Two were ruled suicides.

We got an email whenever there was a death. It was always incredibly eerie. “SCAD mourns death of student,” popped up in our emails, and everyone fell silent. But it was almost as if no one really cared. It was hard to care, because no one in the school seemed to care. The cause of death was almost never disclosed, we had to find out ourselves. The cut-and-paste emails just encouraged the students to reach out to counseling services if they’re grieving or having issues, but that presented a problem.

Everyone who tries to get into counseling services usually has to wait a month. I called a day before my breakdown, and, as expected, I was told that I would have to wait. Those lucky few who have gotten into CS3 have said that the services the school offers are sub-par at best.

When my mom was driving down to the Georgia coast from our east Tennessee home, she called Bradley Hall’s counselling services to try and get me immediate help. She was told, apparently, that they only had one psychiatrist that could prescribe me a medication, and that she would only be in the building one day a week. A day after my breakdown, the second suicide occurred within the fall quarter.

My question is this: At a university with several suicides a year, where students wait months to receive inadequate mental health care, where the president earns millions of dollars a year, the highest paid non-profit college leader in the country, where students pay upwards of 50,000 a year to attend, why is SCAD dragging its feet on providing better mental health care for students?

Perhaps a more appropriate question, why do so many SCAD students take their own lives?

The Savannah College of Art and Design just celebrated its 40th anniversary. It was established in 1978, by Richard and Paula Rowan, with only one building, Poetter Hall. As the years have gone by, the school has expanded, and all but consumed historical downtown Savannah. On almost every street you pass, you can find an academic or administration building, usually a preserved historical building. I took my comics classes in an old hospice. I worked in a Freemason temple, across the street from the admissions building, formally an armory. Paula Rowan, now known as Paula Wallace, is still the head of the school.

They own the two theaters on Broughton, the Trustee’s Theater and the Lucas, home to the Savannah Film Festival, bringing big names and directors to Georgia every year, and the event is organized entirely by SCAD. It’s no surprise that when I think of the school, I think of the thick Spanish moss covering nearly every oak tree. With SCAD, it’s almost as if Savannah has its own invasive species.

It’s a visually lavish place. The choice of Savannah was well-thought out. A beautiful school in a beautiful town. But those who have worked at and attended SCAD are aware that beauty is only skin-deep.

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The Savannah Film Festival on Broughton Street

It’s hard to describe the general tone among faculty and students. Everyone is just a little bit “off”. Us students are all eccentrics, with our own weird quirks and beliefs, but there is a sense of hostility. I remember clearly, a senior in the Fashion department talking about the upcoming show, where only a few collections are chosen to walk the runway. She recalled stories of students coming into academic buildings after hours, and destroying others’ garments. She tried to alleviate the tension she created in the classroom by quickly saying that these actions were punished almost immediately by staff, but the impression had been made on me and the other freshman in the room.

The odd thing was that no one was exceptionally surprised. It’s a tough thing to describe, but it’s an understanding that hostility and frenemies are common in a competitive school environment, where you always feel judged. At a school with class-wide critique, at some point, everyone has to play the critic. I remember, during the quarter in which I later dropped out, I received a pretty favorable critique of one of my projects. I was pretty pleased, but another student who had gotten her critique before mine looked not so much disappointed, but angry. She looked very upset with me for receiving a more favorable critique. It’s natural. We all want a good critique. But even though it was our very first project, being relatively not as weighty on our averages, the stakes felt so much higher.

I don’t mean to accuse my former professors of anything, because I think that it’s by design. I liked all of my professors, I really did. I just think that they were expected to adopt a way of teaching that fit with the school’s ideas. I imagine the thought process is that they think pressure is the best way to encourage students to produce better work. Stress can be a wonderful motivator, but for me and other students, it’s a deterrent.

The workload is already intense, so intense that classes aren’t held on Fridays. Sleep deprivation is not only common, but expected. All-nighters are, at some point, a requirement for a full-time student who wants to do well. Not getting a healthy amount of sleep is treated like it’s just part of the experience. And when you’re in that environment, it’s hard to realize how bizarre that is. Sleep Comes After Death. Sacrificing one’s own health for the ambiguous idea of “success” is not something new, but the “well, what can you do” resignation paired with humor is questionable when students are passing out in the hallways, and dying with such frequency.

SCAD’s attendance policy does nothing to help the immense pressure placed on students. If you miss more than four sessions of a class, you are automatically dropped from it. This is the most common complaint among SCAD students, it being hard to get an excused absence. A professor, on the first day of class, told the story of a student being hit by a bus and not being able to receive an excused absence. A supporter comment on a petition to improve mental health services (which you can sign here) shares her personal experiences with SCAD’s strict policy.

“I’m signing because I had to drop a class when my grandma died. I’m signing because I got an absence when I got metal stuck in my eyeball and had to spend all day in the ER. I’m signing because my friend couldn’t get an excused absence for chemo-therapy… I am signing because I care about myself and the well-being of my classmates. I am signing because something needs to change.”

Something common in the comments on the petition and other online forums is the opinion that SCAD doesn’t seem to care about its students. It’s a strange, unhappy reality that most SCAD students know: they are not valued by the school leaders. And when mental health and other services provided by the school are so lacking, it’s hard not to agree. It’s hard not to hold the school somewhat accountable for vulnerable students taking their own lives.

An outsider, looking at SCAD’s expensive accommodations and industry connections, would never know that these issues were present. This is because SCAD projects a very controlled public image. The university is very concerned with its reputation, especially to prospective students. Having worked across from the admissions building, I met many of them. In the last couple weeks, it was tough working a shift and seeing kids so excited to attend, who had already been accepted. Of course I couldn’t tell them to go someplace else; I was working in an establishment owned by the school.

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Habersham Hall, SCAD Savannah

I think every student realizes at some point that there is something very sinister lying beneath the veneer. Something was wrong. Certain professors would mention an incident in passing, and move on very quickly. There was something spoken of vaguely, something bad that happened, but that was then, and this is now, so we should move on. All we knew was that something happened around twenty years ago. They always presented it as something like, disgruntled professors got upset, so they got fired. No one ever knew what was going on. And none of the professors wanted to talk about it. Then, after several of us expressed interest, one of my no-nonsense professors clued us in. If he were to talk about it, he would also be fired.

I can’t remember how I learned about what happened at SCAD Savannah in the early nineties. Based on the way my professors spoke about it, I would never had guessed.

In the autumn of 1991, a graduate student at SCAD Savannah discovered the burning body on a pile of rags. It was the body of Juan Bertotto, an architecture professor at the school. Another student jumped off of the roof of a downtown hotel. Another, senior Mike Walsh, went up to the roof of Habersham Hall, stripped naked, and jumped to his death. All were ruled suicides.

The administration response to the rash of deaths was to cover them up. After Professor Bertotto’s suicide, a meeting was called. A member of the faculty in attendance said, “The initial inclination was, ‘how can we keep this quiet?’”

But of course, it was impossible. A group of students began to pry into the affairs of the school administration, asking about the deaths, among other things, such as misleading catalog entries, where their money was going, and why everything was kept so secret. Utter chaos followed. There were protests in Forsyth Park that reminded onlookers of Vietnam protests. They were calling for Richard and Paula Rowan to step down. Even worse, two pipe bomb explosions; one at the residence of the Rowans, and one at the arena at which the commencement ceremony is held, resulting in the graduation ceremony being cancelled. Professors got in on the action, creating a committee to question the administration in support of the students. Twelve professors were fired, including David Stout, who said this at a meeting.

“This is a school, not a conspiracy… SCAD has a dark side. You can’t put your finger on it, but the symptoms are everywhere. Ask the faculty who have been intimidated for speaking out. Ask the students who have signed documents guaranteeing their silence!”

In response to the public criticism that SCAD was receiving, the School of Visual Arts saw its chance, and announced its plans to open a Savannah location. SCAD administration started to claim conspiracy. The students and professors had been working with SVA to pave the way for a competitor. Everyone was in on it — and it was planned from the start. The Rowans hired private investigators to watch those organizing the SVA branch, and former professors. Lawsuits followed. Two students not associated with the movement were found guilty of the two bombings. All other matters were settled out of court. The full saga is documented in a Lingua Franca article from 1997, which can be read in full in an archive here.

It reads like a thriller. And I suddenly understood why they had been ordered to not talk about it. I had already dropped out when I read the story of the student and faculty protest, but in that moment, I felt extreme sympathy for my professors. This may be a good time to mention that SCAD was placed on the American Academy of University Professors’ censure list, for “unsatisfactory conditions of academic freedom”, in 1993, and remains on that list today.

There are other stories of SCAD engaging in dubious activities regarding its public image. Publicist Bobby Zarem, who had worked on the Savannah Film Festival for a number of years, filed a lawsuit against the school in 2014, claiming that he was fired after reporting a sexual predator who had assaulted at least four women, who had disclosed their experience to him personally. Though the alleged predator was removed from campus, Zarem alleged that Wallace had launched a cover-up. SCAD claimed that they closed the investigation because they did not receive the names of the victims. There’s other stories of covered up sexual assault, but only in whispers among former faculty and students.

There is also the issue of having an academic building named after Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In wake of the Kavanaugh hearings, students started a petition to rename the building. The student who began the petition stated that they would like it named after Anita Hill.

More than once, students have received food poisoning from the dining halls. Some have been treated poorly by school security. And of course, the high-paying salary of Paula Wallace. Someone attending SCAD is often under the impression that they’ve been swindled, most without the information of their past controversies.

With this information in mind, it becomes clear why SCAD wants to quietly sweep student suicides and other student complaints under the rug. Even when the events of the protest are not well-known, and are fading from most memories, the paranoia surrounding their public image remains. What they care about is receiving tuition, and if word of poor mental health care gets out, it could affect the number of their incoming freshmen. It’s why they focus on the number of students who get employed after graduation during orientation, not the percentage that drop out before then — over half of the freshman class, most within their first two years.

In retrospect, it’s no surprise that my health declined in the way that it did. Between the almost unmanageable amount of coursework, on top of having a part-time job, and the general attitude of students and faculty, I couldn’t connect. I was a fine student, but I spent all of my time in my dorm. I stopped eating properly. I started to dissociate and have random anxiety attacks. I started losing weight at an unbelievable pace; by the time I was back at home, I had lost 30 pounds in a matter of months. I thought all I needed was a summer of rest, but my mental health continued to decline heading into my second year.

The incident that led to my breaking point was the first project in one of my studio classes. This was in the middle of a bad quarter; most of the people I knew weren’t around me anymore, and the work only ever got harder. I got less and less sleep, and I started crying a lot, which was unlike me. It was essentially my midterm, I had stayed up for three days working on it, and hadn’t eaten. All I had was coffee and other things to keep me going, caffeine-wise. It was four in the morning. I weighed my options, but then I realized that I didn’t have options. If I missed one more period of my eight o’clock class, I would be flunked out. I couldn’t skip to finish it. The project was due at 2 o’clock. As the time ticked on, and I got more tired, I got sloppier. My inking wasn’t as sharp. It was a disaster. And I realized I wasn’t going to finish it.

I panicked. Before I knew it, it was 6 o’clock. I started to hyperventilate and weep. I had never missed a deadline before. For me, my life was over. There was nothing left for me to do. I put on my shoes and walked to the library. I had to scan and turn in what I had, I mean, it was better than a zero. I stumbled down the sidewalk, still sobbing.

I was still in front of my dorm when I said to myself in my head, “I can’t do this anymore.”

I made it to the library and submitted what I had done. I took the opportunity to email all of my professors and tell them that I was going through a personal crisis, and that I would probably withdraw. To their credit, their responses were all very kind, and they told me to prioritize my health. It was strange to compare the sympathetic attitudes of my professors to those of the administrative team who helped facilitate my withdrawal. They desperately tried to get me to stay enrolled, and reminded me that I was still in the system, and that I could come back any time.

My mother also tried to get me to finish my quarter first. She reasoned that then, I could transfer credits if I ever decided to come back. She eventually got the picture, given that whenever she mentioned continuing or coming back, I broke down in tears. I made it clear that my life would be in danger if I stayed. I officially dropped out the following Monday, and came back home.

It was a tough road. I began seeing my therapist regularly again, and stayed on my medication. I got a seasonal job at a department store. At my family’s Thanksgiving, everyone in my extended family asked me how school was going. Within five minutes of arriving, I was crying in the bathroom. I left early. Later, I went in to work our Black Friday sale. I started to have debilitating joint pain, which had me in tears by the end of my shift. I later found out this was a rare side effect of the medication I received at the clinic.

Since then, it’s gotten better. I’m on new medication that doesn’t make me feel like I have arthritis. I’ve made my peace with being a dropout. It doesn’t make me a failure, I’m just taking a different road. But after dropping out, I didn’t draw for two months. I associated it with the stress I had to deal with at school. Something that once was so enjoyable to me that I considered it my career path was completely warped by my experience. If I find old art supplies, I sometimes get anxious just by the sight. Some things can never really leave you.

Of course, it wasn’t all bad. My boss and my coworkers are one the only things I can look back on fondly. He’s the best boss I’ve ever had. But then, I still remember the tension that overtook everyone on the clock when someone from administration came in. Anxiety is everywhere. Everyone is afraid of whoever is above them. The students are afraid of their professors, the professors are afraid of their department heads, the department heads are afraid of Paula Wallace. I’ve never had the experience of meeting her myself, though often her secretary came in to pick up a smoothie for her. Opinions vary from savvy saleswoman to conniving dictator.

Savannah really is the perfect place for SCAD. Colonial cemeteries line the streets. Ghost tours populate the sidewalks. People tell stories of seeing glowing orbs at night, or the ghost of Alice Riley in the old hanging square. It’s a haunted city, its dark past hidden by its natural and architectural beauty.

Recently, art schools, specifically CALarts, came under fire for its high tuition costs. But in reality, there’s more to lose than just money. From what I’ve seen since my withdrawal, SCAD has made no changes to their mental health services. If they have, let me know. But I doubt that they’ll own up. If history shows us anything, accountability is not what the “A” stands for.

Bright-eyed high schoolers are still getting sucked in to SCAD’s looks, and it’s all due to the efforts of school administration to bury what it perceives as negative attention. And yet, the reputation of the school only continues to decline as it opts to cover up tragedy, instead of taking responsibility and improving conditions. SCAD, like the antebellum houses that it surrounds, is struggling to keep up appearances, while hiding its dark history. And like an old house, its decaying. It’s a place of death, sleeplessness, and paranoia. It’s a place where students are dropping like flies, but no one seems to care. It’s a place that nearly drove me mad.

SCAD is a beautiful nightmare. They hide poor conditions for students behind a squeaky-clean image. They hide a violent, turbulent history by silencing their professors. They’re trading freshman tuition for the lives of the student body. And while many of the secrets of SCAD are only known to a few within its community, some of us make it out alive. We have the power. We can generate public pressure. We can make a change.

Outside of the community, we have power because there’s nothing that administration can do to silence us. They can’t threaten our jobs, or our enrollment status. We can say the truth without fear, and we should. I don’t want anyone else to go through what I did. I don’t want anyone else to lose their money. I don’t want anyone else to kill themselves. I want accountability. I want students and professors to have a voice. I want justice for those who have lost their lives due to the school’s own negligence.

I could’ve been the third suicide at SCAD in the fall of 2018. I was sold a pretty lie. I lost. But no one else has to lose.

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