TRANSPARENCY TUESDAY: Don't just get mad about colleges' response to mental-health issues -- get informed



A former Amherst College student's nightmarish story of the aftermath of her rape in a campus dorm -- a story so profoundly unsettling that readers are being cautioned to steel themselves before viewing it -- is igniting a wave of indignation over the callous treatment of crime victims when they are most in need of support.

"Callous" is wholly inadequate to describe author Angie Epifano's ordeal with a system that appears, based on her experience, calculated to create a liability-reducing paper trail instead of to offer sensitive and individually appropriate care to those traumatized by campus violence.

Angie's story, published Oct. 17 in The Amherst Student, recounts how she was terrorized by the prospect of indefinite confinement in a psychiatric ward to which campus bureaucrats dispatched her. The column drew a swift response from the university's president, who called the account "horrifying" and promised to bring in outside experts to improve Amherst's response to sexual assault cases.

It is difficult to get through Angie's emotionally wrenching column at all, and it is equally difficult to set aside the lingering outrage over the dangerously inept handling of her case. Being mad will not help change things. These three journalistic responses might:

(1) Get a copy of any manuals, handbooks or other written procedures that govern how the college responds when students are considered at risk for suicide. You may be surprised to learn -- as we were at the SPLC when, in 2010, we requested these policies from colleges nationwide -- that many colleges reserve the right to expel a student at the first sign of suicidal tendencies. Besides being insensitive, that response seems calculated to completely separate a fragile student from her social support system, her familiar living arrangements, and perhaps her best source of affordable care. These "suicide withdrawal" policies -- and note when making the public-records request that most colleges won't call it a "suicide withdrawal" policy, so ask for it by description -- almost certainly were designed to minimize college legal exposure, not to actually help an emotionally troubled person get better.

(2) Find out how many sexual assault cases go through the campus disciplinary board each year and what their outcomes are. Congress amended the federal student privacy law, FERPA, specifically to allow the public to find out the result if a student is brought before the otherwise-secretive student judiciary and found responsible for a violent or sexual offense. So if a public institution says it cannot release the results of campus disciplinary hearings in rape cases, the college is misinformed. Or worse.

(3) Ask questions about the adequacy of campus mental health services. Campus counseling centers are notoriously underfunded and understaffed, often resulting in discouraging waits. What is the ratio of counselors to students on your campus, what are their professional qualifications, what is the wait time for an appointment, and what is each counselor's caseload? At a public institution, the answers to all these questions can be gathered through open-records requests. (Once you find out, consult experts in the field to find out how your level of mental-health services compares with the national picture, and what the professionals recommend.)

The Amherst Student has done a valuable public service by provoking a nationwide discussion over how colleges investigate (or don't investigate) reports of sexual assault and help (or don't help) rape victims get their lives back. Let's keep the conversation going.

 

Tagged: public records, Transparency Tuesday