Can we read our students' minds?

This morning’s Chronicle of Higher Education includes an article on the Florida commission on campus safety. (It’s a premium article, so you have to be a subscriber to read it).

Here’s what The Chronicle says about the general findings:

“In a report issued on Thursday, the commission, assembled by Gov. Charlie Crist in the wake of the Virginia Tech shootings, pointed to crisis-management teams at the University of Florida and Rollins College that identify and talk about specific students who are considered ‘at risk’ of being a danger to themselves or others as a ‘best practice’ that all institutions in the state should follow.”

This, of course, goes in the face of what the Virginia Tech officials are insisting about privacy laws. Hipaa and Ferpa regulations disallow sharing of information about students, with the exception of clear, imminent danger to self or others. Some mental health professionals argue that without a very clear imminent danger, they would be breaking ethical rules of their profession as well as licensing codes by sharing confidential information.

I’m not up on all the intricacies of the laws, so I’m not sure that I can really comment on what these laws do and do not cover, though I’m willing to trust mental health professionals on this.

What does bother me more in the commission’s finding is their clear suggestion that faculty members should be able to spot some of the “warning signs.”

Again, from The Chronicle:
“The Florida commission clearly comes down on the side of sharing information, even without a student's consent. ‘Faculty, staff, and students will frequently observe behavior that is beyond the norm,’ the report says. ‘For instance, essays and term papers submitted by an affected student may contain disturbing and threatening remarks and be early indicators of a problem.’”

Obviously, I haven’t read the whole report, and they may be more specific in other “beyond the norm” behaviors. However, this statement about essays and term papers puzzles me, particularly in conjunction with the frequency with which we apparently see it. The claim that we “see things” in the essays places the burden on the humanities, where more papers are assigned, and most of all on English classes.

The bigger question I have is what exactly do they think we’re going to see? What constitutes “behavior beyond the norm”? Would a student who writes about a violent subject in a piece of literature be considered beyond the norm? Even if the commission means that we’re only supposed to “turn in” students who make threats in their writing, what constitutes a threat? Does it have to be specific, against self or specific other people? Or can it be a more general “obsession” with violent acts? What if a good student consistently writes about acts of rape or murder in literature (since there’s already an awful lot of it)? What about graduate students?

I wondering about this, because I'm guessing that some people will see threats that others don't. I do realize that the VT case is an aberration, and that the professors did find this student alarming. But what constitutes this? What if there's a student who is just rude and annoying? Or even petulant to the professor, but not a real threat? What's the difference between the student who is aggressive in the grade grubbing and the student who poses an imminent threat?

I've certainly had students who made me uncomfortable, but since I've never witnessed someone who is actually threatening, how can I know that those students weren't really a threat?

Perhaps I’m overreacting to this a bit, but I’m frustrated by the assumption that we can “see into” our students’ heads through their term papers.

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