Business (Managing Higher Ed)

It Takes A Village

Troubled Students 


After the tragic shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and Northern Illinois University a year later, higher education institutions faced growing public scrutiny about their efforts to prevent outbreaks of violence on campus and their management of troubled students who might be prone to committing life-threatening attacks.

In the wake of these campus shootings, a consensus emerged among mental health professionals in higher education that the most effective strategy to monitor and help troubled students is behavioral intervention, or campus teams. Comprised of campus safety administrators, counseling and residence life directors, deans and faculty members, these teams can identify students whose behavior is disruptive or disturbing and recommend interventions to help them work through their problems.

While the fatal shootings of 32 students and teachers on April 16, 2007, on the campus of Virginia Tech prompted colleges and universities to review their plans for dealing with troubled students, many institutions already had behavioral intervention teams in place. On some campuses, the teams were given a more formal structure, while other measures — including online notification systems and more staff training — were put into place.

“Virginia Tech brought a microscopic look at how colleges and universities can work together and as a community,” says Gregory T. Eells, director of counseling services at Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. “The colleges and universities I’ve worked at — their cultures tend to be autonomous. Faculty go into the work because they want to be autonomous and staff may be in units that may not talk to each other.”

Breaking Down Silos

This communication problem on campuses was highlighted in the state report issued after the Virginia Tech shootings, said Eells, a member of the advisory board of the Higher Education Mental Health Alliance (HEMHA) Project. In April, HEMHA issued its own report, “Balancing Safety and Support on Campus: A Guide for Campus Teams,” which stated that campus teams not only break down silos, but also help administrators and staff monitor and engage troubled students “sooner rather than later, so that they can receive needed referrals or other appropriate assistance and treatment.”

Cornell created its Alert Team in 2003 to coordinate staff and focus on prevention and early intervention of situations involving students, faculty or staff who are experiencing distress. While some campus teams deal specifically with students, Cornell’s eight-member team meets weekly to discuss referrals of any “community member” who may be engaging in harmful or disruptive behaviors, because, as Eells notes, recent incidents show that some of the biggest threats come from staff or faculty who have former or current associations with a university.

This was the case at the University of Alabama in Huntsville in 2010, when a biology professor who was denied tenure fatally shot her department chair and two professors at a department faculty meeting in February of that year. The professor, Amy Bishop, pleaded guilty to capital and attempted murder and is serving a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.

Another institution that already had a campus team in place at the time of the Virginia Tech shootings is McDaniel College in Westminster, MD. The college’s Student Outreach Network Team, which meets weekly to discuss students showing at-risk behavior, was launched in February 2007. “We were really kind of ahead of the curve,” says Susan Glore, director of the college’s wellness center. “One of the things that this campus has always had is a very good relationship between faculty and staff and with students. We took that and made it more formal and made sure it involved everybody in a more formal way.”

Paying Attention to Early Warnings

Glore notes that the first place where problem behaviors crop up are in the classroom or in the residence halls. “It could be attendance, a drop in grades or a student suddenly sleeping in the classroom,” she said. “Or it could be in a residence hall, where a student isolates himself, which he never did before.”

Students seem to appreciate the concern of college staff and faculty who approach them about a change in behavior. “It’s been very productive and helpful, partly because we make sure that it is an early intervention,” Glore says. “You’re not waiting until a crisis appears. You’re addressing things when they first become a problem, and you’re giving students the opportunity to address it so it’s not growing.”

A year after the Virginia Tech shootings, Union College in Schenectady, NY, restructured its existing CARE team, which had focused on discussing students among campus professionals, to a more goal- and action-oriented approach. In 2008, the team began creating specific plans detailing who will reach out to a troubled student, who will speak with the student and what the ultimate goal is for the intervention, says Marcus Hotaling, director of the college’s counseling center.

Last year, Union College also changed its system of identifying troubled students electronically because of concerns about maintaining confidentiality. Previously, an email would be sent to professors about any student on academic warning or with behavioral concerns, and they would then be asked to report back on the student. Now, faculty are encouraged to go online to their class rosters and identify students having difficulties, which sets in motion a notification to either an academic advisor, the counseling center director or a dean.

“Colleges in general typically worked in silos before Virginia Tech,” Hotaling says. “If one office knew of a student struggling, that office or person would try to assist the student themselves. Post Virginia Tech, schools recognized that students aren’t isolated in specific dorms or departments and are part of the college as a whole; thus the college needs to view them and work with them as such.”

No Single Solution Exists

In 2010, Michigan Technological University in Houghton, MI, established its Early Intervention Team, with the goal of identifying students dealing with multiple issues on campus. The specific criteria that the team set up was that the student must be struggling with two or more issues before his or her case would be handled by the team.

“One of our goals is to help students manage all the kinds of things that are happening in their lives so they can be successful academically,” says Bonnie Gorman, the university’s associate vice president and dean of students. “What had the potential of happening in the past is that students with difficulties would just fade away. Now we’re trying to work with them proactively to get things addressed that need to be addressed.”

Despite the success of campus teams, Eells cautions that they cannot maintain control over every possible violent act that may occur at a college or university, but they can cast a wide net to intervene early in the situation. “What interrupts those shootings is making a human connection,” Eells says. “There’s an intervention or connection made before it comes to a point of violence.”

This article originally appeared in the College Planning & Management July 2013 issue of Spaces4Learning.

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