Time to seriously look at the level of student protection, safety and academic success on college campuses.

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For years I and other high school principals have, more or less successfully, warned parents against “disengaging” when their child reaches high school. I think this warning also holds true for college.
For also like many present and former high school principals, I have experienced several “bad incident”, “bad endings”, college stories. In some situations I had to either on the phone, or actually leave NYC to go and deal with a crisis a student found themselves in. And I may not have the data to prove it, but I truly believe that “bullying”, physical and sexual assaults on college campuses are terribly (for reason of institutional self-interest) underreported. Another important piece of “quiet” data; are the number of students who suffer non-violent trauma, confusion, disillusionment and/or depression, and just flunk out, and come back home. (When a NYC principal my contacts, and the fact that we insisted ever senior apply to the CUNY system have saved the day many times!)

During a crisis, too often the feedback college officials give parents (I have listened in my conference room to these conversations) is that the student is an adult. But that is not reassuring or comforting to a parent who has learned (often from the child) that they are arrested, in the hospital or involved with some kind of conflict with a roommate, professor, staff person or a fellow student. It is not uncommon for colleges to prefer to handle “problems” internally, for what might be some very good reasons (Good PR being the least of them!). But in many situations that results in an injured victim’s rights and care becoming a secondary concern. To their credit many colleges have taken a bold step in the right direction; by warning all students that: “if a crime is committed on campus, the local (not campus) police will be called”

At some point we need to face the issue of the lack of counseling and supervision for young people attending college away from home. This is one of those quiet national tragedies that slips pass the press, until there is a death. Although I believe that we have at least turned the corner on much of the extreme and dangerous “hazing” activities that take place on college campuses, we are not home-safe yet; annually stories still emerge, perhaps due to administration under-sight, or the existence of clandestine and unofficial hazing activities, committed by students who are, just hoping that nobody is seriously psychologically harmed or physically injured, so they won’t get caught.

I get that the colleges prefer to consider them adults, and I understand the “legal-statutory” standards involved here. But the truth is that nothing magical happens to one’s judgement after a high school graduation. These young people going off to college in a couple of months, are very often the same young people we had to counsel out of a bad decision a few months prior. High schools tend to remove parts of the psycho-social scaffolding as the students move from 9th to 12th grade; but we (and alert parents) always keep an eye (even if they don’t notice) on the students as they prove to us that they are making good and sound decisions. Further, young people are at very different places on the independence-maturity achievement scale.

On a college campus, death and serious injury is the extreme situations that can occur; but there are many small tragedies that never hit the news media. And if you are the parent of one of the few students in the nation who die every year at a college; national statistics don’t alleviate your grief and sorrow. One thing I have learned in education, numbers don’t matter when that one tragic number is your child.

Me & Navy

The interesting phenomena I noticed when I spent the day at the Naval Academy was that every student was “connected” to some team, project, activity, program that was connected to an adult. Every student was also connected to a team of other students, who were officially charged (and held responsible) for looking out for each other. The Naval cadets were also connected to families and religious institutions “off-campus”; it seem that to go “missing” or go into isolation was impossible.

Recently, I also spent a semester taking a class at an HBCU (Miles College-Alabama) and one of the things I admired about that institution was that the faculty (and the staff) took on a more parental-mentoring role as opposed to just separating themselves from students, and making themselves only available during scheduled “office hours”; and access by way of “official titles”. It seem that the faculty and staff took a personal interest in the personal well-being of individual students.

Me & Miles

I understand that most large universities can’t (for reasons of size, culture and tradition) duplicate the structures I saw at Miles College and the Naval Academy. But I do believe that they can do better. It’s not enough to see this as a “public relations” problem once something goes terribly wrong. There must be some positive proactive steps that can be taken, that allows students to experience “adulthood”, while at the same time feel protected and connected.

I think we can start by having a counselor (not academic advisor) officially assigned to a case load of students. This counselor of course can check on the student’s academic progress and challenges; but more importantly this counselor can consistently and continually check up on the student’s emotional state on a regular basis to determine if more extensive therapeutic or support services are needed. How is the student adjusting to being away from home? Away from family and friends? Who are their present (campus) friends and associations? What are they involved in outside of academics, i.e. clubs, teams, associations, etc.

We also need to look closely at the HBCU model. When institutions of higher learning take a social-political-cultural interest in the students well-being; and importantly a commitment to making sure that the student graduates; college campuses can become physically safer and emotionally healthier places! They must start looking beyond students as numbers and tuition payees.

That means moving past rhetoric (“Our students lives matter”), and more into operational-structural changes; again before, not after the tragedy! Colleges and universities must look closely at their mission statements to make sure they cover the psychological and physical wellbeing of all students (particularly women); and this can start by connecting every students to a “life-advisor”; who is concerned about them as a person, not a number.
Just having someone check on you, to ask from time to time: “How are you doing?” may not be seen as part of the college’s mission; but it could be seen as part of their humanity mission; after all you can be any age, and still appreciate someone checking up on you; even if you pretend it’s not that big a deal; it really always is! In the meantime parents, stay alert!