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Web Site Offers Guide to Helping Troubled Students

In wake of Virginia Tech, BU says communication is key

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sadstudent.jpg

A new University Web page offers faculty and staff information for identifying students who may be distressed or in crisis and resources for getting them help. Photo from iStock

A violent essay submitted in a creative writing class. An emaciated student working a treadmill for hours at FitRec. A refusal to speak in class. When should a professor or staff member intervene? And how? A new Web site launched by the Office of the Dean of Students and Student Health Services seeks to provide guidance and resources for faculty and staff dealing with these and similar questions.

Called Helping Students in Distress, the site offers advice on identifying troubled students and referring them to the appropriate resource. A brochure of the same name has been distributed on campus as well. To further make University personnel aware of this important issue, Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore has been taking a companion slide presentation to those on the front lines — professors, Student Affairs staff, and residence hall directors, members of the University who have the most direct contact with students.

“If a student was walking down Commonwealth Avenue with a severe limp that may not be caused by a disability, most people would stop them and say, ‘Are you OK? Do you need help?’” Elmore said at a recent presentation for Student Affairs staff. “Yet when we have circumstances where a student is out of sorts, troubled, or dealing with a demon of some kind, we let them work that out themselves. I’m here to say that’s not the way to do it.”

“This is a grassroots effort, plain and simple,” he added. “In a post–Virginia Tech and post–Northern Illinois University era, how do we make sure we are tending to all of our students?”

It’s been almost a year since a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Va., left 33 people dead in the most lethal school shooting in U.S. history. In February, a student gunman killed 5 and wounded 15 at the University of Northern Illinois in DeKalb. In the Virginia Tech case, shooter Cho Seung-Hui’s disturbing classroom behavior and dark writings had alarmed several of his professors, one of whom demanded he be removed from her class. In the aftermath of the campus massacre, a state review panel convened by the governor of Virginia found that communications failures and confusion over privacy laws contributed to the lack of effective intervention in Cho’s case.

“It’s important that we remember we are departments that have to talk to each other, that have to refer people back and forth to one another, and that rely on other departments in the University,” Elmore said. “It’s essential to be familiar with safety information and the backup we have for ourselves, and most certainly for our students.”

Last week, the U.S. Department of Education made a clarification to the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) that eases the legal ramifications of sharing concerns about a student’s mental health in certain areas: health and safety emergencies, for example, and personal observation. Even if a situation is misinterpreted by a faculty or staff member as a potential health or safety emergency, Elmore said, that faculty or staff member is allowed to share the concerns with a third party in an attempt to get help for the student.

The link to the Helping Students in Distress Web site, represented by a rectangular blue icon depicting two clasped hands, now appears on the home pages of Student Health Services, Faculty Central, Marsh Chapel, and the Office of the Dean of Students, among others.

“Trust your gut on this,” Elmore said. “Someone says or writes or does something that makes you feel funny, I think it’s important to refer that person.”

Faculty and staff can learn more about student privacy issues and campus mental health law on Thursday, April 3, when the Center for Psychiatric Rehabilitation presents a lecture by national expert Carolyn Reinach Wolf. The talk is free and will take place at the Metcalf Trustees Ballroom, One Sherborn St., ninth floor, from 10:30 a.m. to noon. For more information, contact Cheryl Gagne at 617-353-3549 or e-mail cgagne@bu.edu.

Caleb Daniloff can be reached at cdanilof@bu.edu.

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