Concerns about Student Behavior
As a faculty or staff member at Texas Woman’s University, you are part of unique and caring community that provides comfort and understanding on a daily basis. At the same time and as a result, faculty and staff members may be in a unique position to be aware of students who may be struggling with one or more aspects of their lives. What follows below is an attempt to identify what issues arise and the resources that exist to help students be as safe and successful as they can be.
Basic Issues of Civil Rights
Before we discuss particular issues, it is critically important that you understand that the basic underlying issue in many cases is what the law tells us about basic rights. In this country, everyone has the right to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”, which means that individual rights are held in high regard. This also means that the restraint of individual rights is taken very seriously and will only occur under extraordinary circumstances. To put it bluntly, everyone has the right to be as odd or different as they like, until they cross a point at which they may be considered by the law to be in imminent danger of harm to themselves or others. Imminent danger is seen as a transitory state – that is, it may come and go depending on circumstances.
Being an Adult (Student) at a University
The laws of the United States confers the status of “adult” to all people on their 18th birthday. By law, that means that anyone 18 or older is entitled to all rights of citizenship (unless otherwise amended). This includes the ability to make contracts and to confidentiality of various services (medical, dental, mental health, etc.) or events (grades in college). Faculty and staff in a variety of areas are bound to maintain the confidentiality of information about college students by a variety of federal and state laws. In particular, the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), restricts the university’s ability to give information about students to anyone outside the university without the student’s written consent. You are encouraged to read and keep a copy of FERPA for your information. You are encouraged to read the entire act. In addition to federal law, state laws regarding confidentiality of records also limit the ability of licensed professionals in certain occupations from disclosing information without written consent by the client receiving services (both outside and within the university). You may read Section 611.002.of the Texas Health and Safety Codes: Confidentiality of Information and Prohibition Against Disclosure to understand the basic rules the State of Texas maintains concerning confidentiality.
How the University Can Act with a Distressed Student or a Student of Concern
While it might seem that the information provided above suggests there is little that can be done, the university provides procedures for dealing with distressed students or students who become of concern to faculty, staff, or other students. In most cases, a student will become a concern because of some behavior they exhibit – an assignment the student completes that causes concern, acting out or acting inappropriately in a public situation, making threats to harm self or others, etc. All faculty, staff, and students should be aware of the Student Code of Conduct. The Student Code of Conduct defines what behavior is unacceptable, including those behaviors that are a disruption “…to teaching or any other lawful function or mission of the University.” Unfortunately, in most cases, faculty, staff, and students do not normally report these disruptions, hoping that events will take care of themselves. In most cases they do. However, it is important to understand that you may see a behavior which, when added to others’ information about which you may not know, may help university officials understand a situation with more clarity.
When a member of the TWU community becomes concerned by the behavior of a student the procedure requires that community member (faculty, staff, or student) to report their concern to the Office of the Vice President for Student Life (940-898-3615). The Office of the VPSL will determine what steps may be necessary following the report. These might include calling the student in to discuss concerns and referring the student to other campus and/or community services. It may also lead to a judicial procedure where the student will have the right to due process in the determination of any consequences of their behavior.
What if I believe the student is in imminent danger?
The laws of the State of Texas are absolutely clear about this. If you believe that anyone is in imminent danger of harm to self or others, you should immediately call the local police department where you know the student to be. If they are on campus, you should call the Department of Public Safety on your campus. If they are in another location, you can dial 911 and tell the operator which jurisdiction you are seeking – they will connect you. You must call a police agency because, in Texas, only police officers have the authority to detain someone, regardless of the reason for the detention. Mental health providers, health providers, and student life staff are not equipped or trained to take someone into protective custody. Failing to call the police (DPS) may mean that the help a student needs is delayed. If a student is in imminent danger because of a medical condition (bleeding, ingestion of pills or other substances, seizure, etc.), even if you believe it is a suicide gesture or attempt, you must call DPS on your campus or 911 off-campus and ask for medical assistance. Medical issues take priority over any other issues. If you have time after calling emergency services, contacting the Office of the VPSL would also be helpful.
Why not just call CAPS?
CAPS staff is able to provide consultations about concerns you may have about a student’s behavior and to advise you about next steps you may take. However, state laws and professional ethical standards prohibit licensed mental health professionals from “soliciting” clients, even when a third party may be making a credible report of concern. In most cases, in addition to consulting with faculty and staff about their concerns, CAPS staff will refer callers to the Office of the VPSL to report their concerns there as well. The Office of the VPSL is the office designated on campus to investigate concerns about students and has much latitude in its ability to approach and follow up with students.
I think the student has a mental health problem. Why would I call the VPSL?
This will take some explaining, so please bear with us. By law, an adult is responsible for his or her behavior until a court determines they are not responsible. When a student acts out, for whatever reason, the university and the student are best served when behavior, rather than what may appear to be underlying issues, is the focus of any intervention or consequences a student must face. The Office of the VPSL can and will sort out what issues may be mitigating circumstances that impacted the acting out and may impact any consequences imposed upon the student. That is a basic responsibility of the Office of the VPSL and no other office or individual on campus. If a student is believed to have some underlying mental or physical health problems which are exacerbating or are being exacerbated by the situation, the Office of the VPSL will refer students to appropriate campus and/or community resources in addition to any other recommendations. However, at the most basic level, the student is responsible for being able to maintain appropriate behavior, as defined by the Student Code of Conduct. Those who cannot or will not maintain appropriate behavior, for whatever reason, cannot be allowed to continue as members of the TWU community.
As a community, we must balance our response to mental health issues. We can see that the extremes of both positions do not work. On one extreme, allowing these issues to excuse inappropriate behavior without consequences creates a disruptive and unproductive learning environment. On the other extreme, attempting to immediately label and remove any student from the university because of a “mental health issue” (for which they may be seeking treatment) violates basic human rights and should give all of us pause for concern about who is making decisions about our own behavior.
Am I creating situations that make things more difficult?
Most of us assume that the college experience should include some kind of personal as well as academic growth. Almost all of us feel that this was an essential and rewarding part of our college experience and we want our students to have that same experience. In most cases, we were what are now called “traditionally-aged” students. That is, we attended college in our late teens or early 20s. Many of our TWU students don’t fit that profile. The average age of our undergraduates is about 25 or 26 and many students come with significantly more life experience than traditionally-aged students. Also, and unfortunately, many of our students come with a history of some type of abuse – mental, physical, or sexual. As a result, some of the assignments we might give, which may seem benign or important for personal growth, serve to bring up painful memories of the past which only may disorient students and make it harder for students to deal with the normal demands of college.
Many professional organizations have added sections to their ethical standards which encourage instructors to think carefully about including assignments which force students to self-disclose personal information about themselves. Those standards may also require that, in addition to being noted in a syllabus, any course curricula that require self-disclosure be identified in the university catalogue so that potential students can have knowledge of that requirement before they enroll at the university. All academic disciplines are encouraged strongly to examine their curricula for required self-disclosures and discuss the nature and purpose of the requirements. Those that are not absolutely essential to the learning process should be considered for replacement.
So, what about ADA? Doesn’t a student have rights?
Students who believe that they have a condition which qualifies them for accommodation under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) can apply for accommodations at the Office of Disability Support Services. It is important to understand that not all disabilities require accommodation and not all disabilities can be accommodated. The law calls for reasonable accommodations and provides for times when there may not be a reasonable accommodation. For example, there is no requirement under ADA that students with severe learning disorders who cannot process math be accommodated in statistics or accounting courses because these math skills are essential skills for those courses. Students who wish to investigate their rights or potential services under ADA should contact the Office of Disability Support at 940-898-3835 for more information.