Students in Distress

Exploring Faculty Responsibilities Toward Students in Distress

On November 18, 2015, the Center for Ethics Education and the Institutional Equity and Compliance Office hosted discussion with Fordham faculty and teaching fellows entitled " Exploring Faculty Responsibilities Toward Students in Distress." This seminar featured brief presentations by Fordham faculty from different departments and an illuminating discussion about experiences, challenges, and opportunities for faculty encountering students in distress. Issues including reporting obligations and interventive actions require thoughtful reflection on the most appropriate way to respond, balancing our commitment to Cura Personalis--providing not only for the student’s academic needs, but for other aspects of their well-being--while also ensuring that our actions are appropriate and do not overstep the boundaries between student and faculty, potentially creating harm. Our 90-minute faculty discussion focused on three main themes with respect to helping faculty professionally address their responsibilities toward students in distress: commitment, competence, and responsible decision-making.

Below are recommendations and resources developed from our discussion. These, as well as more information developed from the discussion, may also be downloaded as a pdf attachment. Please contact the event organizers with any questions: Celia Fisher, Director, Center for Ethics Education and Patricia Scaglione, Director, Institutional Equity and Compliance Office.

  • Faculty commitment to making a difference both in and outside of the classroom reflects a moral disposition and emotional responsiveness that move faculty to assist students in need.

    Commitment calls for faculty to:

    • Diligently determine what is right and reasonable in fulfilling their reporting obligations under university policies.
    • Be discerning and prudent in bringing contextually and relationally sensitive insight, good judgment, and an objective understanding to determine the right solution given the nature of the problem and the individuals involved.
    • Establish relationships of trust with students by letting students know mandatory reporting and related responsibilities, limits on confidentiality and any other information that might be helpful for students to know before they reach out to faculty for assistance.
    • Provide on course syllabi, email signature and/or door signs a notice to students that affirms the University commitment to help them in areas of distress created by sexual, racial/ethnic, religious, gender or others forms of discrimination, as well as contact information for relevant student services.
    • Develop strategies and policies that communicate that diversity is celebrated and critical to the success of the academy, and reflect a university-wide commitment that these actions are deliberate, effortful and constant.
    • Remember that graduate teaching assistants are students, too; they also struggle with these same dilemmas, but may lack the experience and/or training to appropriately address them.
  • Faculty competence in addressing students in distress includes knowledge about student resources and reporting procedures, as well as understanding faculty responsibilities to seek consultation from senior colleagues and university administration and staff, when appropriate.

    Competence calls for faculty to:

    • Approach problems of student distress not as an afterthought, but see university regulations and resources as integral, rather than tangential, to their teaching and faculty responsibilities.
    • Acknowledge and value the diversity that exists in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, religion, economic, ability and other dimensions and actively and consistently confront over and under-estimations regarding the role that students’ backgrounds, values and history play in college life.
    • Seek direct guidance about dealing with safety and mental health emergency situations when necessary and be familiar with related university-provided resources, including materials on Responding to Mental Health Emergencies, Responding to Students in Emotional Distress, Responding Students’ Alcohol and Drug Abuse, Responding to a Students’ Threatening Behavior. Departments should ensure that all faculty have opportunities to speak with counseling, health and public safety staff to discuss specific procedures and protocols when faculty encounter students in distress. Finally, the undergraduate class deans ( Christopher Rodgers, Rose Hill; Keith Eldridge, Lincoln Center) can also provide guidance and resources for faculty.
    • Competence calls for senior and supervisory faculty to proactively work with junior faculty, graduate student instructors, and adjunct faculty to:
    • Provide guidance on resolving difficult student situations and to serve as a knowledgeable and trusted resource.
    • Provide information about university resources, including information about mandated reporting responsibilities including who to report to, and methods to connect students in need.
    • Advise on establishing and maintaining appropriate boundaries
    • Serve as a non-judgemental sounding board
    • Establish a climate that encourages consultation and open, honest and non-punitive discussions about difficult student or classroom situations. Keep in mind that graduate students, adjunct instructors, and junior faculty members may feel uncomfortable seeking consultation with tenured faculty in the department, possibly fearing negative reactions or reviews from supervisors.
  • Commitment and competence will reduce, but not eliminate, challenges that emerge when faculty are confronted with students in distress. When responding to a situation involving a student in distress, responsible decision-making is imperative.

    Responsible decision-making calls for faculty to:

    • Acknowledge that all faculty struggle with difficult questions in terms of their responsibilities toward students in distress, best practices and responsible decision-making, and methods of assisting students in ways that do not violate faculty-student boundaries.
    • Determine and maintain appropriate professional boundaries with students. Although faculty intentions may be well-meaning, pushing boundaries beyond the faculty-student relationship (e.g., frequent sharing highly personal experiences), may have unforeseen negative consequences unhelpful or harmful to student.
    • Once a problem is identified, know the extent to which reporting or other actions are required. In situations where reporting is not required, be familiar with and understand the resources that are appropriate and available.
    • Make efforts to understand and address the perspective of the student in distress, including their expectations and beliefs about the nature and extent of faculty assistance.
    • Monitor and evaluate the effectiveness of a recommendation or intervention to improve behaviors while moving forward.
  • In this section we draw on the commitment, competence, and decision-making framework to illustrate ways in which faculty can respond to specific incidents of student distress.

  • Fordham, like many schools, has mandatory reporting requirements for faculty and staff who learn that a student has been the victim of a sexual assault, harassment or some other type of misconduct (click here to view the policy). Seminar participants stressed that students may view faculty as a trusted resource to confide in, bestowing a special responsibility for faculty to address these disclosures in ways that meet their reporting requirements and also address the student’s distress. Below are some considerations raised during the seminar:

    Guidelines and Recommendations

    • Faculty should be familiar with responsibilities and obligations set out in the university policy and contact the Title IX coordinator with any questions, especially when faculty are unsure if they are obligated to report.
    • Consider including the University sexual harassment mandatory reporting responsibilities on their course syllabi. This provides students with the knowledge that the university and faculty are committed to supporting victims of sexual harassment and assault and also alerts students that such information, should they choose to disclose to faculty or other mandated reporters, will be disclosed to the responsible authorities. (The Title IX Coordinator can assist in drafting syllabus language)
    • Although faculty may worry that mandatory reporting requirements may dissuade students from confiding in faculty, seminar participants advocated that being honest and up-front with students about reporting obligations is the best policy. Faculty who have displayed their reporting obligations on an office door or syllabi have actually experienced an increase in student disclosures related to sexual assault.
    • Although students may already be aware that a faculty member is required to report sexual misconduct, it’s recommended that faculty discuss with the student the reporting procedure, including when and to whom such a report is being made.
    • When speaking with a student making a report of sexual misconduct, do not press for details about the misconduct. It’s important to remember that the role of faculty is not of fact-finder or clinician. The Title IX Coordinator is responsible for investigating a complaint.
    • The responsibility as a mandated reporter ends with the report. Faculty reporters will not be involved in the investigation, be informed about the outcome and should not discuss the case with the parties affected. The Title IX officer and or investigator assigned to the case will not provide the alleged perpetrator with the name of the reporting faculty.
    • Reporters should not contact an alleged perpetrator prior to making a report, should not discuss any ongoing investigation with an alleged perpetrator, and have no obligation to tell an alleged perpetrator that a report has been made. If an alleged perpetrator is a student in the instructor’s class, reporters must consider steps to ensure that their coursework evaluation of the student is not biased.

    Imminent Harm to Self and Others

    • Faculty have a responsibility to contact Public Safety or Counseling and Psychological Services if they believe a student is an imminent threat to self or others. Faculty should be familiar with university procedures for responding to mental health emergency.
    • It’s important to remember that faculty may learn about threats to self or others directly from the student, friends of the student, or in a paper the student may write.
    • If faculty are unsure about the seriousness of the distress, faculty are advised to contact Counseling and Psychological Services or Public Safety(if after hours) for guidance.
    • Faculty should be familiar with the University’s policy on bias-related incidents and/or Hate Crimes, including the New York State Penal Law definition of Hate Crimes, when behaviors are consider bias-related, and the procedures for reporting these incidents to Public Safety.
    • Students who are intoxicated may also pose a serious risk of harm to self or others. The Cura Personalis brochure on responding to students’ alcohol and drug abuse includes guidance for responding in emergency situations.
  • The majority of distress reported by students is likely not imminent in nature and may not be covered under mandatory reporting guidelines. This can include personal distress that does not appear imminent (including general distress, anxiety, family problems, economic anxiety and substance use) and can be communicated through a number of ways, including class discussion, individual meetings in office hours, class assignments, and through friends and family of the student.

    In the Classroom
    There are times when faculty may be able to anticipate distress in students, such as when course materials or faculty discussions touch on sensitive topics. Students may also report discomfort related to experienced macroaggressions in the classroom.

    Guidelines and Recommendations

    • Faculty can take pre-emptive steps to minimize the possibility of distress by including in their course syllabi all topics that will the focus of class material, lectures and discussion.
    • Omitting critical topics due to fear of potential student discomfort may violate our faculty responsibilities to present unbiased, accurate and comprehensive information. At the same time, limits on class time may prevent a full discussion of all topics and perspectives on a given subject. Faculty should be responsive to reported student discomfort about topics that are not included in course syllabi or discussion, as students may incorrectly assume that faculty do not believe these topics have value, merit or importance.
    • The decision for faculty to share personal information with students, either in the classroom or in individual meetings, can be a source of confusion. Faculty should carefully consider the appropriateness of personally disclosing information to students, and evaluate whether the personal disclosure has didactic, pedagogical or other teaching-related value. Faculty also clearly indicated that the focus should be on the student’s experience, rather than that of the faculty.
    • At the same time, senior faculty should be aware of and mentor graduate students instructors and junior faculty who may be struggling with decisions to disclose minority identities (including sexuality, gender and other identities) in the classroom that might have unanticipated effects on classroom climate.

    Microaggressions In and Outside of the Classroom
    In class or during office hours faculty may become aware of student distress in response to overt or subtle forms of prejudice and stereotyping based on their membership in racial/ethnic, religious, or sexual orientation or gender socially marginalized groups. The majority of distress reported by students is likely not imminent in nature and may not be covered under mandatory reporting guidelines. Microaggressions are “everyday verbal, nonverbal and environmental slights, snubs or insults, whether intentional or unintentional, which communicate hostile, derogatory or negative messages to target persons based solely on their marginalized group membership” (Sue, 2010). Below are a few recommendations generated by faculty:

    • When student’s discuss reactions to microaggressions it is important to discuss and affirm their feelings and provide appropriate campus referrals, such as the Office of Multicultural Affairs.
    • Student reports of microaggressions should inform class curriculum and/or classroom management style. Faculty from all disciplines should seek to include course material reflecting the contributions of minority scholars or written works on the life histories of socially marginalized groups in their course curricula.
    • Faculty should also be sensitive to and prepared to address negative stereotypical language that may emerge in the classroom.
    • When the faculty shares a similar racial/ethnic, religious, or sexual orientation or gender identity background to the student, they should not assume that the student has confided in the faculty member exclusively for this reason. Sharing personal experiences of microaggressions are often unhelpful, as faculty may be unduly burdening the students with their own personal experiences. Faculty should thus strive to focus on the student’s distress using an affirming and resource oriented approach. Our resource section below includes suggested interventions for addressing microaggressions.

    Outside of the Classroom
    Students may seek faculty assistance outside of class (e.g., office hours) or communicate distress in class papers. For example, faculty often come across student papers that describe a highly distressful or personal experience.

    Guidelines and Recommendations

    • Understand your role and limitations. As you address a student’s distress, be careful that you are not creating a potential therapeutic relationship.
    • Seek advice from counseling services or other university resources, including any of the deans, to determine whether a referral is warranted and the resources available to the student.
    • Avoid prying for details – it’s best to leave this to trained professionals. Asking for details that a student does not wish to divulge may be an invasion of privacy, cause harm, and violate student-faculty boundaries.
    • In addition to mental health concerns, faculty encounter distress of other types, including economic, familial, and legal concerns for which faculty would benefit from additional university-based resources and guidance. For example, some faculty who participated in the seminar indicated that they frequently encounter students with significant financial concerns who are worried about paying for their education; participants suggested that having a university designated representative to whom faculty can refer students would be enormously helpful.
    • Students also communicate distress through class papers and written assignments. It is difficult in these situations to know whether the student is reaching out for support or would perceive faculty follow-up as an intrusion or under which conditions such statements are subject to faculty reporting requirements. For example, faculty who learn about a sexual assault incident through a student’s written assignment must follow the  University’s Sexual Misconduct policy mandatory reporting requirements.

    For questions or more information, please contact:
    Celia Fisher, Director, Center for Ethics Education: [email protected] | 718-817-0926
    Adam Fried, Assistant Director, Center for Ethics Education: [email protected] | 718-817-0926
    Patricia Scaglione, Director, Institutional Equity and Compliance Office: [email protected] | 718-817-3112

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