Listening, Caring and Taking Action

Published On: June 20, 2016

Adjusting to living on campus can be a strain on even the most well adjusted and social of students. It’s an unfortunate reality that each academic year, students on college campuses across the world find themselves in uncomfortable, frustrating or even dangerous situations. Made up of 17 professional community directors, 45 grad student community directors, 15 community support services staff, more than 115 resident assistants (RAs) and departmental administrators, MSU’s Student Behavior and Conflict Resolution (SBCR) department partners with numerous other units throughout not only the Division of Residential and Hospitality Services but the entire MSU community to ensure that every student’s voice is heard.

The Real World Effect
The first priority of SBCR is to make sure no incident goes unnoticed. The department, which falls under the umbrella of Residence Education and Housing Services (REHS), tracks the number of incidents, the type of incidents and what steps are taken to resolve approximately 3,500 incidents each academic year. The reports spike in September and February during what SBCR Administrator Jessica Rehling calls, “the Real World effect.” “Remember the MTV show ‘The Real World?’ These people had to live together, and, as they say in the opening credits, they ‘stop being polite’ at a certain point,” Rehling explains.

Many of the young adults moving into the MSU residence halls have never lived away from home and have only had rules imposed upon them by their parents or guardians. “When they get to this new environment, they want to be very nice to people, and then someone becomes annoying to them. So it becomes harder to want to keep being so nice,” says Rehling. The problems that may arise at these points of wondering whether or not it’s worth it to “be so nice” are sometimes interpersonal and other times a part of identity development that nearly all students go through. Students find themselves asking early on, “Are there still rules?” and “if the rules don’t coincide with the rules I knew at home, am I possibly above them in some way?” Rehling explains.

This is a normal part of any college student’s development, which includes a bit of pushing to determine where the boundaries lie. SBCR is there to help when students end up pushing past these boundaries. Because of these spikes in incidents at the beginning of each semester, policy is made clear and enforced from the moment students move in. Being consistent, rather than forgiving, makes the boundaries clearer for students during those early, exploratory weeks.

Tracking, Tracking, Tracking
SBCR tracks policy violations involving alcohol, bomb threats, damage, domestic violence, drugs, harassment, mental health, physical assaults, roommate violence, partner violence, stalking, sexual abuse or assault, verbal altercations, weapons, smoking, theft, noise, and even those involving pets. “We had a student send an email,” Rehling explains, “requesting to keep a friendly squirrel, saying, ‘He’s cold and wet.’ But as cute as he may have been, we have to say, ‘That’s definitely an outdoor pet, and we can’t, unfortunately, have him in the residence halls.’”

As mandatory reporters, RAs and other support staff are key in making this process consistent. Instead of burdening support staff with all of the information and rationales related to MSU policies and federal laws designed to protect students and their information, SBCR trains support staff to do their jobs correctly every time in every situation. This ensures every student concern makes its way to SBCR without falling through the cracks. Non-student staff, like Rehling, who are trained in the ins and outs of these laws and policies, follow through accordingly and make sure support staff can do their jobs well, safely and within the law. “One way to make sure we follow procedure is to require that there is always a call made to the appropriate partners,” says Rehling. For example, MSU has defined federal recommendations to say that in safety incidents, the university will call the police. “There’s no risk then of, say, a 20-year-old RA making a decision of who gets to be told something. That would lead to huge inconsistencies with everyone making independent decisions on these very important topics. And it removes some unwarranted liabilities from our young RAs. They are doing their job exactly as they are trained to do it, without discriminating against another student or potentially ignoring what someone has to say.”

The department also individually tracks non-policy issues, from someone propping open a residence hall door to worried parents calling to inquire about the mental health of their child. “Sometimes,” says Rehling, “it might be the parent who needs a bit of hand holding. Sometimes we find a situation where we’re able to offer their student help.” The rationale behind all of this tracking is to best determine how the university might be able to help students as well as anticipate incidents and even determine trends in what is occurring where on campus. Each MSU neighborhood has its unique issues. As a result of tracking, SBCR can go as far as to see if one neighborhood has more problems with racial bias compared to another that may have issues with mobility. Once these trends are determined, the department develops educational tools and programs for the halls or, if necessary, training for hall staff to prevent and address these issues. The GPAs of students involved in incidents are tracked as well to see if, as Rehling puts it, “it’s someone who works hard and plays hard, who we might help differently than someone who is getting in trouble for partying because they’re getting close to flunking out and they’re becoming reckless because they don’t care anymore.”

Another important aspect of this tracking is to tell the university’s story more accurately. “People may have preconceived notions of what life on campus is all about,” says Rehling. “And it’s nice to be able to see, for example, for all of the concern about drugs you may hear about, this is something that isn’t so much of an issue for us.” With this information in hand, SBCR is able to aid “students of concern,” or those popping up frequently in its tracking system, though Rehling points out that most students fortunately don’t have recurring issues. But when names begin to appear on several reports, SBCR offers referrals to Mental Health and other teams based on the severity of the incidents. If the situation is serious enough, and particularly if a student seems to pose a threat, they will go through a conduct process, often being removed from the residence halls during this time.

Working the Problem to FInd a Solution
At this point, several university-wide teams become involved. MSU’s Behavioral Intervention Team focuses on harmto-self cases, while the Behavioral Threat Assessment team looks at both students and employees who might intend to harm others. A Title IX Response Team, including MSU Police, the General Counsel’s Office and the Office for Institutional Equity, looks at issues of discrimination. The Bias Team looks at verbal and nonverbal targeting of protected characteristics (see sidebar on page 20). These teams’ reports are reviewed by SBCR. “So I’m able to be the point person who gathers information coming from several sources,” Rehling explains. “If you have a pocket of information and I have another, but we’re not talking to each other, we don’t see the elevated threat. This one team looks at what’s happening in the residence halls but then also reviews what might be a classroom disruption or if this student had an issue yelling at staff in Financial Aid, for example, to see if there’s a bigger problem.”

Crisis Intervention teams, including members from the MSU Counseling Center, Olin Psychiatry, Academics and Student Life, among others, can be gathered within a halfhour to take action. Of course, in the case of an immediate threat, MSU Police are called even before these teams begin to investigate. “We call the police, record and track every incident,” Rehling explains, “and then the offices investigate to make sure we’re getting the students and community the support they need.” MSU has a number of resources and support it is able to extend to students. Cares Meetings, for example, are followups for students hospitalized for mental health so those students are aware of relevant on-campus resources and how to use them. Contingencies are in place for everything from aiding students if the records system goes down to providing sick trays to students stuck in their rooms due to mono.

Offering Support
SBCR’s closest collaborator is perhaps the Department of Student Life’s Conflict Resolution unit, which, along with SBCR, offers Restorative Justice-based solutions to students (see sidebar on page 18) for nonviolent situations. In these instances, everyone involved is looking to salvage a harmed relationship so that all can say they are now able to move on. Often, this looks at bringing students to a point of accepting those they take issue with. Or as Rehling says, “They may not love the person they’re living with, but they can handle each other to survive.”

Associate Director of the Department of Student Life Rick Shafer explains the concept of Restorative Justice in a video posted to MSU’s Conflict Resolution website, by saying, “When we do wrong, we often feel some shame … Restorative Justice, from an academic perspective, really works from this notion of reintegrated shaming … let’s use shame in a positive way to encourage people to accept responsibility and make amends.” Instead of asking, What did you do wrong, and how will you be punished? Restorative Justice asks, Who was impacted, and how are we going to repair this? This aids in finding a resolution while at the same time helping to maintain the community.

If there are intentional infractions, of course, a student may be charged with a policy violation. Rehling says these procedures can assist students beyond the immediate outcome of their difficult living situation. “Living together on campus, and when needed, going through these processes will build skills for students who, as they go through life, maybe won’t particularly like a coworker just as they now don’t particularly like their roommate. They won’t be allowed to simply ignore that coworker, and they certainly won’t be allowed to blow up at them. It may be a challenge for all involved, but it’s a worthwhile challenge to address.”

Alternative Dispute Resolution practices are also put into play depending on the situation. These practices run the line from:
1. Avoidance (a simple issue such as a student not liking the hours their roommate keeps and choosing to not make an issue of a non-threatening annoyance that they can choose to live with)
2. Dialogue, Debate and Discussion (often where the RAs are most useful, offering a mutual conversation to rectify a grievance)
3. Conflict Coaching (where an RA will offer advice to a student on how to go have a productive one-on-one conversation with the person they are having an issue with)
4. Facilitated Dialogue (where RAs sit down with those involved to moderate a conversation to resolve low-level conflicts)
5. Mediation (a bit more formal, where communication has broken down between the parties and simply facilitating a dialogue is no longer enough. By the end of these meetings, an agreement is put in writing where those involved are now tasked with taking specified steps to resolve the problem).

Giving Students Back Their Power
With all of these policies and procedures aimed at supporting MSU’s students, one of the most difficult situations can occur when procedures are followed but a student who has been the victim of an incident is still unhappy or feeling unsafe following the outcome. It can take a lot of courage for a student to go to an RA to talk out a situation. They may not feel comfortable when certain federal laws or university policies dictate that further steps are necessary, though mandatory reporters will immediately identify themselves so a student is aware if the situation they have brought up must be told to someone at a higher level. Rehling explains, “A huge part of being a survivor or being in an abusive relationship is that you’ve lost power — someone has taken that power from you — so we try to then give you that power back.”

Although certain incidents must be reported to the police, victims still have the right to decline to cooperate any further with the police. And if a circumstance requires a referral to the Office of Institutional Equity so it can offer resources to a student, it is still the student’s right to refuse those resources. The student may not be thrilled that these types of phone calls have to be made, but immediately after, they have control and the choice of how they wish to handle the situation. As Rehling says, “We have an obligation to take what everyone says seriously and to help.” And with a strategy of vigilant listening and consistent follow-through, the safety and physical and mental health of students will always be the number one priority