Responding to Disturbing Content in Student Work

The Student Counseling Service provides consultation to faculty with respect to questions faculty may have about the mental health status of students—especially questions of dangerousness to self or others—based upon disturbing writings or other class products of students.  A counselor may be reached by calling the SCS main number at 529-4634; a counselor will either take your call immediately or will call you back as soon as possible.  If you believe it may be an emergency situation, let the secretary know this and a staff member will get back to you as soon as possible.  You are also invited to e-mail the Director or other staff members.  If there is a question of imminent danger, call University Police immediately at 529-2222. 

There may be occasions when it is appropriate to obtain additional information about the student in question, or have him/her come to the SCS for evaluation.  In such cases, the necessary steps will be taken to arrange this.  In accordance with the requirements of confidentiality, it will not be possible for the SCS to reveal any clinical data that may exist regarding the student - or even if the student is a client. We will, however, consult with you and provide some suggestions for follow-up.

The central question will be to determine if the student's expressions are evidence of severe mental illness, if the student is a danger to self or others, or if some type of treatment or intervention is warranted. Whenever appropriate, the SCS will work closely and consult with the Dean of Students and University Police.

Such consultations and/or assessments sometimes reveal the existence of an emotional problem.  At other times, however, we have found that some students were unaware that they had created a problem for others, or were unintentionally violating cultural or social norms.   Irrespective of the student's understanding of the impact their work has on others, it is important and appropriate to evaluate aberrant or potentially dangerous student expression and, if necessary, intervene.

Some Suggestions on How to Respond: While at times the worst response is no response, in most cases you do not need to respond immediately to e-mail, notes, or calls from the student if you do not feel comfortable doing so. It is suggested that you consult with your department chair, Office of Ethics and Student Conflict Resolution (529-1417), or Student Counseling Service before responding to the student.  Often faculty or teaching assistants respond to students in an enabling way, sometimes in an effort to let the student down easy. It is recommended that you refrain from making promises, commitments or personal comments in your response to the student.

If the appropriate opportunity presents itself, you should express your concern about the content of the work to the student.  It is important to be as clear and specific as possible about your concern and what it is that has led to your concern. You might suggest to the student that you would like to delay grading the assignment until you and the student can discuss things further - this also provides you with time to consult as necessary. The reaction of the student to this form of intervention may elucidate the nature of the student's motivation and increase their awareness of the behavior. It will also help you determine if the student was merely acting sensationally, immaturely, or was merely unaware or insensitive to appropriate socio-cultural or university norms.

Keep copies of all communication with the student. Factual feedback to the student will depend on having an accurate record of agreements, comments, e-mails, etc.