Thursday, February 18, 2010

a dirty little secret?

Sheila, I'm sorry for your loss. There was a case of a campus I was on (some years ago) of a student threatening to kill his chem prof (after he failed the class for the third time). Luckily, they took that fairly seriously (for a while, at least) and told the student that if he came back on campus, he would be arrested.

But then a couple years later, they let him re-enroll. Nothing happened so I don't know if it was an issue of his needing medication (and having gotten it) or if he matured to the point where he realized having a violent temper was not going to help him in the world.

One thing that I suspect is a dirty little secret on many college campuses, I think (having been associated closely with four in my life), is that a lot of the "petty" crimes - or things like threats being issued - DON'T get out in the main media. I suspect there's a push on a lot of campuses to keep things "quiet" in order to protect their reputations. And while that's maybe not such a big deal with students getting CDs stolen out of their cars (the "grapevine" gets word around, anyway: hey, don't leave stuff out on your car seat), some of the more serious would probably be a good idea if it were more widely known.

I've heard of, in my time as a student and prof, an assault not being publicized, the threats from the student I mentioned above not being publicized, a break-in and theft in a campus building not being reported...and I'm sure there are cases of things like "Is it or isn't it" date rape not being reported and gone after (And yeah, I realize, it can be a gray area. But I think if a person does not clearly give consent - or if they tell the other person to "stop," and they do not, it would be rape).

There was also a case of a student falsely claiming they were robbed at gun point. The original story didn't make the media, nor did its later retraction. But a lot of us were kind of on edge for a few days until the word got out that the story was a hoax; considering it was allegedly a robbery in the middle of the day on central campus.

There also tend to be communication with the fake-robbery issue. There was never a hint given that "We think this is hinky" during the time it was initially reported, and a lot of us were somewhat concerned, especially those of us who sometimes come into campus very early, or stay after most everyone else has left, or come in on weekends. And there have been cases of stuff that could potentially affect people only ever getting to them through "the grapevine."

The other issue comes in with HIPAA. While on one hand, it's great - I wouldn't want even the minor medical stuff I have written up on the campus website for all to see - at the same time, we are not permitted to know if a student has problems. I once had a student with terrible anger problems. He would come in to my office hours and shout at me when things were going badly in class, to the point of which, one day, I was so shaken and so scared that I actually called the campus advisement center (he was a freshman and was getting his advising there) and tracked down his advisor. This was because, literally, I wanted there to be a "paper trail" if he came back and did something violent. The advisor said-without-saying, "Yeah, we know he has some problems, we're trying to get him back on meds." But profs are not permitted to know if they have someone in their class who has had problems in the past - even in the vaguest of terms. We have to figure out for ourselves, "Oh, this guy seems to have a problem controlling his anger."

It also can make accommodating disabilities difficult; you get a sheet saying, "Student X needs A, B, and C" but unless the student discusses with you, you don't know which of those are truly essential (I've had students of whom it was claimed they needed extra exam time come to me and say, "No, really, I don't. I want to take the exams in the regular class time" and they did fine), or even an inkling of what the disability is. We have to guess. I have a student with what I assume is autism this semester. I was not prepared for it; I think I actually scared her a little one day. If I had known, I might have been able to be even more sensitive. But I'm not allowed to know, not unless the student comes to me and tells.

I've also heard - no names attached, of course - stories of students deciding that it was "OK" to go off their medications. Things like medications to control seizures. It would be scary to have a student in class go into a seizure because they had decided, against medical advice, to stop taking their meds. And it could be dangerous in some classes, for example, where Bunsen burners were being used...the student could be injured.

We plead with students to tell us - in confidentiality - if some of them have medical conditions that might affect lab safety. But if they don't tell us, we can't know.

The problem, of course, is the in loco parentis thing. A lot of schools in the past took that seriously - to the point where, especially for female students, you had to get "passes" if you were going to be out of the dorm after 11 pm. And while I don't think we want to go back to that (I know I wouldn't have, even though I was really never out of the dorm after 11 pm), on the other hand, there should be the consideration that although students (and faculty) are adults, they are also living and working in very close community with others - and things that someone chooses to do, that are unwise, can be a bigger problem than they might be in another situation.

I don't know. I realize it's a "drawing the line" type of situation. And in the past, the line was probably drawn to be too paternalistic. But now, where a blind eye is turned to lots of things (binge drinking in particular, but I think colleges are now realizing that they have a real liability if someone is injured), I think they may have gone too far in the laissez-faire direction as regards students: a lot of the 18 year olds on a campus are out in the "world" for the first time, and I've seen people do stuff that was really foolish and risky, and could have seriously injured themselves, because they lacked common sense or because it was "woo! I'm free of parental influence!"

And while I tend to be OK with people "failing" when they fail to use common sense, in a lot of cases the foolish behavior doesn't just put the student (or prof) in question at risk: it can endanger other folks. I had a friend who talked about his early days as a TA, where he had a student who would toke up before class and come to lab stoned. My friend said he was always very cautious to make sure the student wasn't doing anything too foolish (one time the student hooked a Bunsen burner up to the water faucet - thinking it was the gas - and created a fountain. But if he had hooked something else up to the gas, and turned it on - or turned the gas on and left it unlit - that could have put everyone else in the class at risk). And when I took Organic chem, I remember the lab prof vaulting across the lab one day and tackling a student - the guy had been cleaning a piece of glassware with ether, there was still residual ether in it, and he figured that he could get the ether to evaporate by holding the glassware over an open flame...again, that could have put the rest of us at risk.

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