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For student-conduct administrators like Erin Hungerman, Katie Meyer’s death was a wakeup call.
Meyer, a star Stanford University soccer player, was found unresponsive in a dormitory March 1. Her parents told Today that anxiety over a potential disciplinary action by the university may have contributed to her death, which was ruled a suicide.
In a statement to The Chronicle, a Stanford spokesperson said the university is not able to discuss confidential student disciplinary matters.
The news brought increased scrutiny to college disciplinary processes — which Hungerman, the assistant dean of students at Youngstown State University, in Ohio, knows can be scary, confusing, and isolating. She wants to make it less so.
“There are obviously some things that we have to say, but I think how we say them can look a bit different,” she told The Chronicle.
She’s working with her staff to review existing documents and see how they can improve boilerplate language to be less intimidating and more empathetic.
Hungerman is among the student-conduct administrators and experts who say Meyer’s death should serve as a reminder of the importance of providing empathy and support to all parties in disciplinary matters, an idea that has gained traction over the last 10 years but isn’t always carried out. In Title IX hearings in particular, experts say, respondents are often not treated with the same compassion as complainants.
But experts also say that the larger issue is the omnipresent mental-health crisis on campus, and concerns about student discipline shouldn’t distract from that.
The Power of Empathy
Explaining the discipline process to students and building rapport are key to making the process less intimidating, Hungerman said. Getting an email that they’re in trouble can feel like the end of the world for a student, and it’s important that they know it isn’t, experts said.
“I think students should understand that there is a future after a student-conduct process, regardless of what happens,” Hungerman said. “Yes, talk to them as an administrator 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 the higher-education consulting firm Grand River Solutions — said in cases where a party is accusing another party of harm, administrators sometimes drain their communications of empathy in an attempt to seem as neutral as possible.
“Particularly when we start talking about Title IX, there’s just a lot of scrutiny,” Compton said. “And if somebody 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, the regulations under Title IX, the federal gender-equity law, add further complexities to supporting students during the conduct process.
To Brett A. Sokolow, a risk-management consultant and the president of the Association of Title IX Administrators, there’s a marked difference in how administrators communicate with respondents and complainants in Title IX cases.
“The tone of letters sent to respondents is clean and clinical. There’s no warmth to it, and it’s just bureaucratically businesslike,” Sokolow said. “Whereas the tone to complainants is embracing and supportive and empathic and friendly.”
Furthermore, colleges are not currently required to offer the same supportive measures to respondents as they are to complainants under Title IX. Many colleges and universities offer supportive measures to both parties anyway.
“I think situations like Katie’s will hopefully help to draw attention to the idea that the language we use in letters, the way that we try to show someone the support that they need in a time of crisis — that’s something that we can use for all parties, not just the person filing the complaint,” Sokolow said.
The shift toward 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 a focus on retention. Some offices have changed their names to reflect new priorities and responsibilities.
“I think people are seeing us less as people who kick people out, and truly as campus partners who contribute to retaining students and making sure they stay on our campuses,” said Patience Bryant, the 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. It changed from Conflict Resolution and Student Conduct Services to the Student Resolution Center in 2016.
Amy Ferree, the assistant director of CSU’s Student Conduct Services, within the Student Resolution Center, said the conduct process is meant to be restorative whenever possible.
“We really try to balance the needs of the students, the community both on campus and off campus, as well as others that were impacted,” Ferree said. “And so we’re able to really wrap [students] in support while also holding them accountable.”
Compton, of Grand River Solutions, said it’s student-conduct administrators’ responsibility to figure out what is driving 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 marijuana is ‘My mom is dying of cancer, I’m failing my class, and my partner just broke up with me.’ And it’s really our job to figure out the difference between those two.”
Larger Issues at Hand
Years ago, when 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 in conduct proceedings wasn’t severe, Compton said; the student wasn’t facing the threat of suspension or expulsion from the institution. And it wasn’t clear that the student’s decision to take their 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 somebody about it … and have the opportunity to sit down with my boss and [say], ‘Be honest with me, if there’s something I missed that I should have done differently, tell me,’” Compton told The Chronicle. “We went through all of it. And there really wasn’t in that situation anything else I could have done.”
To Compton, this experience showed how some things were simply beyond her control.
“I did all the right things,” she said. “And this still happened anyway. 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 not be enough.”
Compton believes Meyer’s death highlights the ongoing mental-health crisis on college campuses and the pressure on students to be perfect.
“Certainly, when somebody is an elite athlete, there’s a significant amount of pressure there,” she said. “But there’s a significant amount of pressure on every college student. Most of that is self-imposed, but often that comes from family. That comes from the cost of higher education and people needing to finish quickly so they don’t incur more debt. That comes from just years of messaging, either internal or otherwise, that failing is not an option.”
In the fall-2021 American College Health Association National College Health Assessment, which surveyed 33,204 students at 41 institutions on their health and well-being, 21.7 percent reported being diagnosed with depression at some point in their lives, and 27.4 reported an anxiety diagnosis. More than 17 percent had been diagnosed with both.
Kevin Kruger, the president of Naspa — Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said that focusing on student conduct instead of mental health “nudges in the wrong direction about how to solve this problem … We can’t knock off student conduct. It’s just not possible to have a community where these things aren’t a part of the learning process.”
Instead, he told The Chronicle, it’s important that more faculty and staff members are trained on identifying “signs of distress” in college students so that they can get the help they need.
Yes, working in student conduct is a tough job, Compton said. It requires the administrator to try to identify root causes that might be driving impermissible behavior and connect students to resources, while at times handing out tough consequences. But it’s a job that she loves.
“I think people have a fundamental misunderstanding of student-conduct work,” Compton said. “People will often tell us that, ‘Oh gosh, I don’t want your job, I’m glad I don’t have your job.’ We love our jobs. We get to interact with students really at a point where often they’re ready to make some change.’”