Window Watching

Even now, more than seven years later, the tragedy of Taylor Cothran and his death from a fall through his USC dorm window remains a mystery. We know he fell, or seemingly was propelled, through his fifth floor window at about 3:00 a.m., his blanket-wrapped body landing on the roof of the dorm’s first-floor cafeteria. We know he had used pot and maybe some other drugs that night. But we still don’t know how he managed to plummet through the closed blinds and closed window without disturbing objects on the table in front of the window and with access to the window blocked by bunk beds and boxes.

Taylor’s parents asked Mark Meshulam, a window expert, to help solve the mystery, but even he was not able to figure it out.

Meshulam did conclude, however, that it’s time we take a look at the building codes for college residence halls.

But Taylor Cothran’s death was an isolated incident . . . wasn’t it? Sadly, no.

  • Henry Treadway, a UC Berkeley sophomore, jumped from his sixth-floor dorm window on May 8, 2012, in an apparent suicide.
  • An 18-year-old student at USC in Los Angeles removed the screen from his dorm room and fell six stories, surviving but in critical condition.
  • Taylor Hubbard, a student at George Washington University, fell to his death in May 2010 from a fifth-floor dorm window.
  • A freshman at Georgetown University suffered serious injuries in January 2011 when she fell from her fifth-floor dorm room window which she had opened to let in cool air.
  • One April, a freshman at Illinois State University leaned against the screen in her 18th-floor room, then tumbled out. Miraculously, her fall was broken by a tree limb and she landed on a pile of wood chips, surviving but with some serious injuries.
  • >Two male students at the University of Kentucky died in May 2002 after they fell out of a sealed, plate glass window in a dorm’s third story while wrestling.
  • And the list goes on…

What are some of the common elements?

These accidents involved young adults whose brains are not yet mature. According to MIT’s Young Adult Development Project, “the human brain does not reach full maturity until at least the mid-20s.”

At least some of the victims were under the influence of drugs and/or alcohol, not unexpected behavior for college students. In 2013, 39 percent of college students said they had used some illicit drug in the prior year, according to a University of Michigan study.

In some instances, the windows of even upper-story dorm rooms were designed to open. Some universities, such as Columbia in New York, have installed stops on residence hall windows to limit the height of the opening to a safer span. After the accident at USC, the university started enforcing the prohibition against placing bunk beds in front of windows. USC has also retrofit dorm windows with restrictors.

Finally, college students, like all the rest of us, like to let in the fresh spring air. Maybe the urge to throw the windows open to catch a spring breeze is the reason the Window Safety Task Force chose April to publicize measures we all can use to prevent falls and other window-related injuries and deaths. The National Safety Council worked to bring together members of the American Architectural Manufacturers Association, the Window and Door Manufacturers Association and the Screen Manufacturers Association, the National Association of Home Builders and other organizations.

The Window Safety Task Force offers these suggestions to help protect children — and even though college students may have reached the age of majority, to parents they’ll always be their children.

Follow these suggestions to keep your family safe at home or at school:

  • Teach them not to play near windows.
  • Keep windows closed and locked when children are present.
  • When opening a double-hung window on an upper floor of the home, open the top sash if possible, while keeping the bottom sash closed.
  • Don’t rely on insect screens to prevent a fall; they are not designed to withstand the weight of a person.
  • Keep furniture away from windows. A climbing child or a restless sleeper could fall through.
  • Install ASTM-approved fall prevention devices which allow a window to open only a few inches.

Inspect your own home or the potential residence of your child while away from home to detect hazards related to windows, blinds and screens. Look at the windows, don’t just look through them.