Students of Concern

My latest in Slate is about a creative writing professor who was asked to confront a “student of concern” directly, in her office, (more or less) alone (having only your grad TA as backup counts in my book as worse than alone). It’s a complicated issue that involves freedom of speech, mental health, student support, and the role of the faculty. And now I want to hear from you. Have you ever had a “student of concern”? What happened? What resources were available to you? What do you wish you’d been able to do (if anything)?

16 thoughts on “Students of Concern

  1. Yes, I think we all have. One sticks out. A brilliant young woman but deeply depressed. Wrote me bad and very dark poetry. Lots of office visits where she talked about death. Missed classes. Finally I physically walked her to the counseling center. She got help, got some meds and, after a semester off, came back, did well and graduated. I’m a middle aged male prof but I had no qualms about giving her a big bear hug at graduation. Her mom and dad both gave me a hug afterward. She’s been out several years now, has a boyfriend and a good job. We are still in touch.


  2. Decades ago, when I was teaching at a university in Michigan a student experienced what was later diagnosed as a full-blown psychotic breakdown in my office and later threatened to kill me. Lucky for me the university had procedures in place that resulted in the student later being arrested (for not only carrying an illegal weapon but trying to remove it from his pocket as he confronted me in a hallway choked with students) and committed by court order to a psychiatric hospital. Although those two sentences are easy to write the weeks of mounting apprehension and anxiety, during which the student made ever escalating but veiled threats against me and my family, are almost impossible for me to describe adequately. No training in my field or as an educator could have prepared me for that terrifying experience. I was lucky that my departmental colleagues and the university tried their best to ensure my physical safety during that time.


  3. I teach at the 3rd largest university in Florida (52,000 students). I’ve been here for 21 years (I’m one of those tenured assholes you hate on, and yes,, many of us deserve it).

    Almost every year, he NRA gets some yahoo in the State Legislature to introduce a bill allowing concealed carry on college campuses; last year the Florida Supreme Court said that students ARE allowed to keep handguns locked up in their cars on campus. Every year this bill gets closer and closer to passing, and this being Florida, it is inevitable that that bill will one day pass.

    When the day comes that our Teatard legislature allows CCW on campus is the day I start packing my concealed .380. Yeah, Like I said, Florida.


    • I am sorry I hate on tenureds. #notalltenureds! I would appreciate it, though, if you would be a little careful about your language on this blog. As much as I loathe the Tea Party, I think it is derogatory to people with intellectual disabilities to use that word. (Plus, unfair! Most people with intellectual disabilities are far smarter than Tea Partiers.)


      • Touché. Sorry about that…. I should have said “Tea People” or the ever-popular “baggers “.

        I’ll watch my motherfucking language. Hey, it’s your blog.

        And you are right; comparing people who were born with intellectual disabilities to proto-fascists who choose to suffer from motivated reasoning and cognitive dissonance is unfair.

        BTW, just this week I turned down my Chair when she asked me to be DGS for our Ph.D. Program on the grounds that it is immoral to recruit students to our R2-ish program in this day and age. I used some of the data you and ANS have linked to on this blog (even though I am one of the large social science disciplines that usually posts over 125 TT jobs per year). To her great credit she understood my objections, though she is obviously in an bind because the Admins want the $$$$$$ our program has generated in the past when we actually DID place mot of our doctoral grads in full time lines.

        Keep up the good work. Many of us tenureds, even in big departments with 2,000 majors at huge public universities, cann see the writing on the wall.



  4. I had a student who had a pretty serious break with reality. She accused me of recording our conversations, investigating her, trying to get her thrown out of school and eventually of scanning her brain and tracing her car. She simultaneously began emailing, texting, etc. how much she loved me and wanted to be with me. She offered to pay me for that at some point. Certainly no one encouraged me talk with her. I was advised to have no contact. She was taken to counseling by my dean and was referred to outside counseling. Student affairs got involved and the campus police were notified. She stopped briefly, then started stalking me more, including showing up at my house (an hour away) numerous times. She ended up withdrawing from school. I had to get a restraining order, which she has since violated. She now has a warrant out against her, though they seem unable to find her to actually serve it.

    All in all I feel like people did the best they could and certainly never intended to put me in a bad situation, but the response all around seemed inadequate. I don’t think anyone involved at the university really knew how to handle the situation. She never made explicit threats, which I guess makes it hard to involuntarily commit someone or pursue criminal charges. I often wonder if people might have taken a different approach if she had been a male student.

    Things were also complicated by the fact that at the time, I was an adjunct on a semester contract. For obvious reasons, I didn’t want to make a big deal out of this. No one suggested that I shouldn’t or any way suggested that my job was on the line, but those thoughts certainly crept in.


  5. I teach at a community college and I did have a student who was clearly off his meds corner me in my office going on about how everyone was out to get him and other paranoid delusions. All I could think was why don’t I teach in a department that doesn’t give them sharp objects (art department) and how can I talk this guy down so this ends without problem. It ended fine but was a little worrisome during the episode. The college has a great security department but it is hard to call when you’re in the middle of things. He was already on the college’s radar and working with the counseling department. However, the college can’t tell faculty exactly what the student’s problems are without violating confidentiality. I’m all for protecting confidentiality, but there should be a system that allows for faculty to be warned about students or at least given some kind of training if they know we’ll be dealing with students like these. We are not trained to deal with problems like unstable students.

    The other incident I had wasn’t a mental health issue, but I was advising a student and trying to register them. When I went to register the student, I got a message stating the student could not register and was given a code that I didn’t know. It took me two support staff to find out it was a hold for a code of conduct violation and that I couldn’t know what but that most of them were to due to violence. I was then told to go tell the student this. No mention of calling security or anything. Thankfully nothing happened and my fellow faculty kept walking back and forth past the office to make sure I was fine, but there should be better policies to deal with these things. The student should never get back with us alone in an office especially when they are checked in before coming back to see us.

    Most college’s have counselors on staff and competent security, but it doesn’t make it any less frightening. My stories are not as bad as some posted here, but as a female faculty member who teaches at night mostly, I do worry sometimes about my safety as well as the rest of my class. All it takes is one time. I do wish we got more training both on how to talk people down in bad situations as well as how to deal with potentially alarming behavior. This is the new reality on college campuses and it does need to be addressed so everyone can feel safe.


  6. Oh yes, I have one. I can send you via email over the weekend if you like. Not as bad as some of the above, but I definitely felt threatened and worried for my safety. Probably not surprisingly, the student was an older male.


  7. I wrote about this earlier this year when someone at Tenured She Wrote complained about student breakdowns in her office. It’s scary that many professors are front line offense for student mental health situations and that many are completely unsure of how to handle themselves. Let alone that many professors are contingent–they may not even know who to connect their students to at their their institution. Thanks for writing this one!


  8. It’s a complicated situation but it clearly boils down to this: In a corporate setting I encountered a person who had been physically violent on two distinct occasions. I’ll call him Ron. Ron consistently expressed a seemingly inarticulable hatred toward a female coworker of ours (she was also a friend of mine). Ron’s first physically violent outburst saw him removed from my apartment by police and paramedics. But during Ron’s second physically violent outburst (at a bar after a company event) he told me he wanted to “crush [the female coworker] out of the company” and he told me he’d even thought about killing her. I decided to warn the coworker in question and I went to management. I was handed a notice of misconduct -it alleged I had been “spreading gossip,” and it accused me of harassing Ron. The female coworker did not believe what I had reported, which began the disintegration of my friendship with her and two others, and the acrimonious nature of that fallout led to my dismissal from the company. I wish I had been recording video and audio during Ron’s second outburst. I deeply regret involving management and not going straight to the police.

    I enjoyed your article. I sympathize for those who find themselves in these situations without proper support. And I wish them luck.


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