Dealing With Unstable Students
If you teach for any amount of time, you’re going to encounter mentally unstable students. The degree of instability you encounter may vary, but at some point you will encounter a student who makes you concerned for his or her own safety, or perhaps even for the safety of your other students, your colleagues, and even yourself. How do we respond to such situations appropriately, with empathy, and while protecting the safety and classroom experiences of our other students?
I was, unfortunately, recently reminded of what it is like to have to deal with a student who poses a legitimate risk to the people around them. The experience reminded me of how important it is to know the appropriate university procedures for such situations, as well as how important it is for instructors to have institutional support when dealing with alarming students.
In the era following the shooting tragedy at Virginia Tech, every college and university that I’m aware of has adopted protocols (here’s the one my university uses) that attempt to identify students who may be at risk of harming themselves or others before events turn irrevocably tragic. Unfortunately, these protocols, and especially the less transparent ones followed by your university’s legal services office, are sometimes designed more to protect institutions from liability in the event of a tragedy than they are to prevent a tragedy from befalling you and your students in the first place. In what follows, I offer some tips for navigating university bureaucracy when you are concerned about a student’s mental health or behavior.
Notice, I don’t offer here warning signs for how to detect instability in students. Guides like the one linked above are omnipresent in these times. Consult your own institution’s version. What I’m dubbing, in layman’s terms “instability,” may cover quite a range, from behaviors that are merely quirky to those that are terrifying. Here I am only concerned with the end of the spectrum wherein you worry for a student’s safety, or the risk the student may pose toward others. Know and follow your university’s protocols for identifying alarming behavior, and trust your own intuition. Here are some generalized tips for how to navigate your own responsibilities and your college’s institutional offices when you encounter a student engaged in alarming speech or behaviors.
Broadly, there are three categories of services that you can access at most universities if you are worried about a student’s behavior and/or mental health. After you have alerted your own departmental leadership, the options for reporting disturbing student behavior include your university’s offices for counseling services, legal services, and campus police. And, generally, most university protocols for dealing with disturbed students will have you access those resources in the order outlined here. Of course, it is absolutely essential that you know and follow your university’s specific protocols. Failing to do so could result in a significant delay in getting qualified experts to intervene with the student in question. In addition to the risks incurred by such a delay, failing to follow your university’s protocols could in some rare cases even expose you to personal liability.
Department reporting: If a student alarms you or has already caused you to initiate your university’s first reporting step (whatever that is), it’s a good idea to notify your supervisor, such as your department chair. In many cases your supervisor will have better knowledge of appropriate college protocols, or perhaps better knowledge of the effectiveness of various college offices that you may not have much experience approaching. At the very least you want the appropriate official in your department to be apprised of the situation. They can offer specific advice, or simply help you navigate university procedures properly.
Counseling services: University counseling services are typically the first step in trying to connect a student with mental health services and in putting a stop to the behaviors that are worrying you. Most universities have counseling centers, and most of these centers have hotlines and/or procedures for instructors to access when they are concerned about an individual student. Counseling centers are usually quite clear in providing guidelines for how to connect a worrisome or endangered student with their services. In most cases, counseling centers will “take over” dealing with the student once certain criteria have been met.
Legal services: If you and your supervisor are uncertain how to intervene with a student, or if counseling services have failed to remedy a student’s alarming behavior, I recommend consulting your university’s legal services office. This is only really useful in non-urgent situations.
Campus police: At most institutions, if you feel that a student poses an imminent threat to himself or to others, campus police are the go-to resource. Police can react the most quickly to intervene, protect all parties’ physical safety, and ensure that the troubled student sees an appropriate mental health professional.
In some situations a university’s options for responding to disturbing student speech or behavior may be frustratingly limited. In the event that a university’s standard response procedures are unable to resolve the situation you’re faced with, here are some additional options and things to keep in mind. Just because other university officials have been unable to resolve a situation does not mean that you have to accept ongoing behaviors that make you feel threatened or that make you fear for the safety of others.
Trust your instincts and share your thoughts: Our intuition is powerful, and if a student’s speech or behavior becomes discomfiting, you need to listen to your instincts. Discuss the situation with a trusted colleague or mentor. Remember also that while FERPA (the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act) protects student privacy, you are permitted to discuss those actions that you observe. My understanding of FERPA, after many training sessions at two different public institutions, is that while we have a legal obligation to protect student privacy, we are permitted to relay to appropriate university officials those student behaviors that we observe. And in the case of a student who appears to be a risk to himself or others, I’m willing to run afoul of FERPA. Further, FERPA experts say that if you are alerting appropriate authorities, such as those mentioned above, as opposed to something inappropriate, such as posting something on Facebook that identifies a student, you are unlikely to face any legal challenges. Such regulations can be sorted out later, whereas a tragedy cannot be undone. Students do of course have a right to privacy, but that right to privacy does not trump your right to safety. Nor should one student’s personal issues be permitted to disrupt the learning of their peers.
Create a paper trail: It can be very uncomfortable to have to create a written record of the events and behaviors that are alarming you, but it is absolutely necessary. Creating a written record of what has happened, whom you have alerted, and when, is essential. Delete nothing. Keep any relevant communications the student may have sent you, as well as any messages you sent to supervisors or other university officials. If you’re really worried, it’s worth your time to record a log of events, of what behaviors you’ve observed and when, and what actions you took, from speaking to the student to contacting university officials. Such a record is particularly important if one of the university offices you’ve contacted fails to follow through on its own obligations, or if the student contests actions that you or the university initiates.
Do not diagnose: Chances are that you lack both the qualifications and the information to diagnose your troubled student’s problem. So, refrain from the attempt. Limit your account in your communications with colleagues and university officials to verifiable facts, things that you have observed directly , and things that have been relayed to you by fellow students (only when applicable — don’t ask students to report on one another). You impugn your own credibility when you make diagnoses that you are unqualified to make.
Do not confront: When it comes to dealing with the student of concern, don’t escalate the situation with a direct confrontation, particularly if institutional remedies such a counseling have already failed to change the student’s behavior.
Escalate, strategically, at the institutional level: Unfortunately, as a faculty member you are not always your institution’s primary concern. These are clearly options of last resort. But, if you genuinely fear for your safety and the safety of your campus community, you may be left with no other choices. Make your fears known. If you really do fear for someone’s safety, let police know. We live in a litigious society, and in cases where you feel your safety is at risk, you should use that fact to your advantage. Once a specific fear has been raised, the university is compelled to take action.
Don’t let your empathy put you at risk: Students who engage in potentially threatening speech or behaviors are often suffering from severe problems. It’s natural for us to feel badly for them, to empathize and seek to understand that they too are victims of a certain type. However, even though such students may themselves be the suffering victims of a trauma or a mental disorder that they do not deserve and did not bring upon themselves, that’s no reason to accept risk to your own person or to the other students and colleagues. If you’re uncertain how to proceed with a disturbing student, seek advice from colleagues and supervisors.
Those who, luckily, have never had to interact with a truly unstable student may interpret this column as paranoid. Early in my career, before I had encountered such troubled students for myself, I would probably have been dismissive of a warning such as this one. And I would have been very, very wrong. Instructors who interact with students week in and week out may be well positioned to help unstable students receive the services that they need. In extreme cases, intervening at the right moment may prevent tragedy.
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