Paragraph 7 reads: "Bryan Peck, a freshman from Omaha, hanged himself from his bed Nov. 18, 1999. In the weeks leading up to his suicide, he went to the counseling center, where he was diagnosed with "social-anxiety disorder" and given samples of the antidepressant drug Paxil."

Board: Counselor destroyed files after suicide
Drake psychologist said to have acted after student suicide


May 17, 2006

The former leader of Drake University's counseling center destroyed medical records after being accused of mismanaging the case of a student who committed suicide, state regulators say.

Psychologist Thomas Peterson has agreed to take 12 hours of record-keeping classes to settle an ethics charge brought against him by the Iowa Board of Psychology Examiners. He faces no fine or suspension for his actions.

The settlement, which was made public last week, disappointed the mother of Bryan Peck, who committed suicide in a Drake dormitory in November 1999.

Laraine Peck said she believes the destroyed records would have shown Peterson ignored clear signs that her son was suicidal. "I'm surprised they let him off this easy," she said of the psychologist. "I think he should have lost his license."

Peck and her husband sued Drake and Peterson in 2001. At the time, university spokeswoman Lisa Lacher disputed the family's allegations that the death could have been avoided if college officials had done their jobs. "Drake University was not responsible for Bryan's suicide and will vigorously defend itself in court," she said. However, both the university and the psychologist paid confidential amounts of money to settle the case, Laraine Peck said.

Peck and her lawyer said the university fired Peterson for destroying the records. A Drake lawyer confirmed that the university terminated the psychologist, but he wouldn't comment on why. Peterson could not be reached for comment.

Bryan Peck, a freshman from Omaha, hanged himself from his bed Nov. 18, 1999. In the weeks leading up to his suicide, he went to the counseling center, where he was diagnosed with "social-anxiety disorder" and given samples of the antidepressant drug Paxil.

At one point, he wrote a despondent poem, titled "falling down," and duct-taped it to a wall in the hallway of his dorm. "Everyone says you have to go on," the poem said, "but when you feel the gun in your hand, it seems so easy to let go, ... so why go on?" A dorm staff member found the note and gave it to her supervisor, but no one called Peck's parents, Laraine Peck said.

A day before the suicide, her son was found pounding his head against a wall in a friend's room, she said. He told a security guard that he was depressed and had been seeing a counselor, but the guard failed to notify the counseling center, she said.

The family's complaints against Peterson included that he failed to seek records from mental-health treatment that Bryan Peck had received in high school.

Drake lawyer Steve Serck said the university has significantly improved staff training about depression and suicide, partly because of Bryan Peck's death.

Serck said employees, including dorm staff members, are trained to recognize the signs of depression and to report problems to the counseling center. He said that under current Drake rules, parents are notified if a student is in crisis. Serck said no Drake student has committed suicide on campus since Peck died, although one student killed herself last year while home on vacation.

Laraine Peck said she was glad to hear of Drake's changes, though she wondered why no one from the university had told her family about them. She also said she was disappointed that she was not given the chance to speak to the psychology-licensing board before it reached a settlement with Peterson.

Susan Enzle, the chairwoman of the board, said Peck might have been called to testify if the board had held a hearing. But Enzle said no hearing was held because the case was settled.

The board has the power to fine psychologists or pull their licenses. Enzle, who is a Cedar Rapids psychologist, said she couldn't legally comment on how the board decided on Peterson's punishment. She said she didn't take lightly the charge of destroying medical records. "I take it very seriously. I think the board did, too," she said.

Enzle said a public charge can be a significant punishment, because it can harm a psychologist's chances at employment and malpractice insurance. "It's not something I'd want on my record," she said.

In the past five years, Enzle's board has lifted the licenses of three psychologists. Two of them had sex with their patients. The third was repeatedly charged with drunken driving.

The destroying-records charge is rare, regulators said. No other such cases have been prosecuted in the past 10 years by the 19 professional-licensure boards run by the Iowa Department of Public Health. Two cases have been prosecuted over allegations of altering records. One led to the suspension of a social worker. The other led to a citation against a physical therapist.

The Iowa Board of Medical Examiners, which is not one of the 19 boards, has had one such case in recent years. In that case, which involved several different types of charges, a physician was suspended for a year and fined $10,000.