Katie Meyer’s suicide emphasizes student discipline. Experts say mental health is the biggest issue.
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For student conduct administrators like Erin Hungerman, Katie Meyer’s death was a wake-up call.
Meyer, a Stanford University soccer star, was found unresponsive in a dorm on March 1. His parents said Today that anxiety over potential university disciplinary action may have contributed to his death, which was ruled a suicide.
In a statement to The Chroniclea Stanford spokesperson said the university was unable to discuss confidential student disciplinary matters.
The news has brought heightened scrutiny to college disciplinary processes — which Hungerman, the assistant dean of students at Youngstown State University in Ohio, knows can be frightening, confusing and isolating. She wants to make it less.
“Obviously there are things we need to say, but I think the way we say them might feel a little different,” she said. The Chronicle.
She is working with her staff to review existing materials and see how they can improve boilerplate language to be less intimidating and more empathetic.
Hungerman is among administrators and student conduct experts who say Meyer’s death should serve as a reminder of the importance of providing empathy and support to all parties when it comes to discipline, an idea that has gained traction. over the past 10 years but is not always done. In Title IX hearings in particular, experts say, respondents are often not treated with the same compassion as complainants.
But experts also say the larger problem is the pervasive mental health crisis on campus, and concerns about student discipline shouldn’t distract from that.
The power of empathy
Explaining the disciplinary process to students and building rapport are key to making the process less intimidating, Hungerman said. Receiving an email saying they’re in trouble can feel like the end of the world for a student, and it’s important they know they’re not, experts say.
“I think students need to understand that there is a future after a process of student leadership no matter what happens,” Hungerman said. “Yeah, talk to them as an admin and help them understand the process and how they can best navigate it and how they can best prepare for it, but also talk to them as a human.”
Martha Compton – who worked in student conduct at several colleges and led the Association for Student Conduct Administration before joining higher education consultancy Grand River Solutions – said that in cases where one party blames another party of prejudice, administrators sometimes empty their communications of empathy in an attempt to appear as neutral as possible.
“Especially when we start talking about Title IX, there’s just a lot of scrutiny,” Compton said. “And if someone says to a complainant, even, ‘I’m so sorry this happened to you,’ in an email, that could be used against them as bias.”
Indeed, regulations under Title IX, the Federal Gender Equity Act, add additional complexities to supporting students during the conduct process.
For Brett A. Sokolow, risk management consultant and president of the Association of Title IX Administrators, there is a stark difference in how administrators communicate with defendants and plaintiffs in Title IX cases.
“The tone of the letters sent to respondents is clean and clinical. There’s no heat to it, and it’s just bureaucratic like a business,” Sokolow said. “While the complainants’ tone is embracing and supportive and empathetic and friendly.”
Also, colleges are not currently required to offer the same support measures to respondents as they are to plaintiffs under Title IX. Many colleges and universities offer supports for both parties anyway.
“I think situations like Katie’s will hopefully help bring attention to the idea that the language we use in letters, the way we try to show someone the support they needs in times of crisis – it’s something we can use for all parties, not just the person filing the complaint,” Sokolow said.
The shift to more supportive student conduct systems – or “restorative justice” systems – has spread in recent years.
This movement involves changing disciplinary action to be more educational than punitive, with an emphasis on retention. Some offices have changed their names to reflect new priorities and responsibilities.
“I think people see us less as people kicking people out, and really as campus partners who help retain students and make sure they stay on our campuses,” said Patience Bryant, president. of the Association for Student Conduct Administration.
Colorado State University is one of the institutions with a new name for its student conduct office. He moved from Conflict Resolution and Student Conduct Services to Student Resolution Center to 2016.
Amy Ferree, assistant director of CSU Student Conduct Services at the Student Resolution Center, said the conduct process is meant to be restorative as much as possible.
“We really try to balance the needs of students, the community both on and off campus, and others who have been affected,” Ferree said. “And so we’re able to really wrap [students] in support while holding them accountable.
Compton of Grand River Solutions said it is the responsibility of student conduct administrators to determine what is causing problematic behavior so that a student can get the support they need.
“Sometimes a beer is a beer is a beer is a beer,” Compton said. “And sometimes the beer or the marijuana is, ‘My mom’s dying of cancer, I’m failing in class, and my partner just broke up with me.’ And it’s really our job to understand the difference between the two.
Bigger issues at your fingertips
Years ago, while working in student discipline on a college campus, Compton lost a student, who was going through the conduct process, to suicide.
The incident for which the student was the subject of conduct proceedings was not serious, Compton said; the student was not threatened with suspension or expulsion from the institution. And it was unclear whether the student’s decision to take his own life had anything to do with the case.
Still, Compton tried to figure out what she could have done differently.
“I needed to talk to someone about it…and have the opportunity to sit down with my boss and [say]”Be honest with me, if there’s anything I missed that I should have done differently, let me know,” Compton said. The Chronicle. “We went through all of that. And there was really nothing else I could have done in this situation.
For Compton, this experience showed how some things were simply out of his control.
“I did all the right things,” she said. “And it still happened. And I think it’s really hard to get to a point where you recognize that you can still do all the right things and that’s not enough.
Compton believes Meyer’s death highlights the ongoing mental health crisis on college campuses and the pressure on students to do well.
“Certainly when someone is an elite athlete there is a lot of pressure,” she said. “But there is significant pressure on every student. Most of this is self-imposed, but it often comes from family. It comes from the cost of higher education and people who need to finish quickly so they don’t go into more debt. This comes from a few years of messages, internal or otherwise, that failure is not an option.
In the American College Health Association’s Fall 2021 National College Health Assessment, which surveyed 33,204 students at 41 institutions about their health and well-being, 21.7% said they received a diagnosis of depression at some point in their life, and 27.4 reported a diagnosis of anxiety. More than 17 percent had been diagnosed with both.
Kevin Kruger, president of Naspa – Higher Education Student Affairs Administrators, said focusing on student conduct rather than mental health “is going in the wrong direction on how to solve this problem… We can’t not suppress student conduct. It’s just not possible to have a community where these things aren’t part of the learning process.
Instead, he said The Chronicle, it is important that more faculty and staff are trained to identify “signs of distress” in students so that they can get the help they need.
Yes, working in student driving is hard work, Compton said. This forces the administrator to try to identify the root causes that might be behind objectionable behavior and connect students to resources, while at times inflicting harsh consequences. But it’s a job she loves.
“I think people have a fundamental misunderstanding of student driving work,” Compton said. “People will often tell us, ‘Oh my God, I don’t want your job, I’m glad I don’t have your job.’ We love our jobs. We get to interact with the students really to the point where often they are ready to make changes.”