Faculty offered resources to assess behavior, weigh privacy concerns

November 03, 2008

University Park, Pa. — Despite a few tragic events at a handful of colleges in recent years, serious violence on university campuses is extremely rare, and universities must balance security interests with students' privacy rights and personal freedoms. In this new era, many colleges and universities have revisited the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which protects the privacy of student education records.

In addition to completing this review, Penn State has developed several educational tools to help faculty and the greater University community understand this law, and better determine when it is appropriate to intercede for the health and safety of Penn State students.

A group represented by several University departments that deal regularly with student records and requests for student information, such as the Office of the Registrar, Admissions, Financial Aid, University Relations, Student Affairs and the Office of the President, recently convened to ensure there was consistency in understanding and complying with the law and in ensuring students' privacy.

While the group determined that the University was accurately complying with the law, they suggested that resources for educating faculty and others who have regular contact with students — but who may not have the expertise to determine when unconventional behavior was more than just evidence of an eccentric personality — would be helpful.

As a result, several print and multimedia materials are now available to faculty and staff to help them gauge whether certain student behavior may warrant timely, respectful and caring intervention, and perhaps referral to medical professionals, for the student's well-being.

"We wanted to pull together, in one place, information on resources that faculty and staff can call on when they encounter disruptive situations on campus or students in distress," said Robert Pangborn, vice president and dean for Undergraduate Education. "These materials were shared at the new faculty orientation at the start of the semester but they also are intended to help all faculty and staff anticipate appropriate responses to a range of behaviors. It is important to respect individual rights of expression while at the same time promoting an environment that is safe and supportive of learning."

The guide "Managing Disruptions and Related Behaviors" was written to help employees with their response when faced with questionable or disruptive behavior. The guide is a follow-up to the 2004 University Faculty Senate informational report on "Managing Disruptions in the Classroom," according to Pangborn. The Managing Disruptive Behavior document can be found online at http://www.psu.edu/oue/disruptions.pdf.

In addition, Joe Puzycki, assistant vice president for Student Affairs, noted that a University Park Response Team is being established to provide the greater Penn State community with an outlet to respond to larger issues that may influence campus safety. The team will develop early-intervention and on-going response strategies that support students who may be distressed, experiencing various adjustment issues or are in crisis, all while balancing student privacy rights against risks associated with potential campus violence and destructive student situations. A similar response team has been developed at Penn State Altoona.

For Penn State faculty members, a brochure titled "Faculty and FERPA" explains their responsibilities under the law, defines differences between educational records and academic records, and clarifies what knowledge about a student that faculty members may and may not share, without the student's consent, to others such as prospective employers. It also addresses what a faculty member may be able to say when they observe behavior changes in a student that may require outside intervention for the student's well-being. The brochure can be downloaded at http://www.registrar.psu.edu/confidentiality/Faculty_and_FERPA.pdf.

In addition, the University's ANGEL Web-based course management system offers faculty and staff an online FERPA tutorial, which culminates in a 20-question quiz to assess the user's knowledge regarding the handling of student educational records. Instructions for accessing the tutorial can be found at http://www.registrar.psu.edu/staff/ferpa_tutorial/ferpa_tutorial_page.cfm online.

"The Family Policy Compliance Office of the U. S. Department of Education is reviewing and clarifying the law, especially as it pertains to health and safety issues," noted Karen Schultz, University registrar and FERPA compliance officer for Penn State. "We thought it would be an appropriate time to ensure that our faculty, who may be the first to observe a student in distress, understand how they can assist without violating the student's FERPA rights."

According to Dennis Heitzmann, director of Penn State’s Center for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), depression and anxiety were the fourth- and sixth-highest rated health issues according to respondents in the the 2007 National Collegiate Health Assessment survey. Of those respondents, more than 42 percent felt so depressed they found it difficult to function at points along the way in their collegiate experience.

Among students treated at Penn State's counseling center, Heitzmann noted, 62 percent have already had some form of mental health counseling, 29 percent were once or are currently on psychotropic medication, and 6 percent have been hospitalized for psychiatric reasons.

Heitzmann, Mary Anne Knapp and other counselors and social workers who counsel Penn State students participated in the creation of a set of online videos and related resources titled "Worrisome Student Behaviors: Minimizing Risk" to help demonstrate realistic scenarios faculty and staff may encounter during their interactions with distressed students. Four video scenarios portrayed by actors are followed by segments where three CAPS counselors discuss each scenario, offer their assessments and suggest responses the faculty and staff members depicted might undertake.

"The 'Worrisome Student Behaviors: Minimizing Risk' Web project presents faculty and staff with common troubling situations in the form of vignettes, where there is some ambiguity about the level of danger involved and the appropriate course of action. Discussions by members of the CAPS staff, intervention guidelines and information about resources provide guidance to faculty and staff as they decide what action is most appropriate," explained Knapp, a clinical social worker at CAPS. "In workshops these vignettes will be a launch point for discussion about how faculty and staff might handle a situation depending on student response to the initial interventions."

The Worrisome Student Behaviors videos and support materials can be found online at http://studentaffairs.psu.edu/caps/wsb.

The videos project, created with support from Penn State President Graham Spanier's Future Fund, is a collaborative effort involving Penn State Public Broadcasting (PSPB), the Office of the President, the College of Education and the Center for Counseling and Psychological Services, a unit in the division of Student Affairs. More information about "Worrisome Student Behaviors" is available online at http://live.psu.edu/story/34953.

  • The online video series 'Worrisome Student Behaviors: Minimizing Risk' presents four scenarios faculty may face, followed by advice from a panel of counselors as well as links to additional resources. Click on the image above to go to the video site.

    IMAGE: Penn State

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated September 23, 2020