Most colleges have some form of behavioral monitoring systems in place that discuss and respond to students the school deems concerning, and Vassar is no different with its Student of Concern Team (SOCT), soon to be called the Student Support Network (SSN).
According to an all-campus email Dean of Students D.B. Brown sent out at the beginning of the school year, the SOCT is comprised of various faculty and administrators, including the Dean of Studies Joanne Long, the Director of Residential Life Luis Inoa, the Interim Director of Counseling Services Doctor Wendy Freedman, and is chaired by Brown.
Brown wrote, “When appropriate for a specific student, we are sometimes joined by Susan Zlotnick, Dean of Freshmen, John Craig from the Health Service, Renee Pabst, Director of Health Education, or MaryJo Cavanaugh from the Office of Accessibility and Educational Opportunity.”
The email articulated some of the specifics of the program, and emphasized its focus on students’ wellbeing and confidentiality.
“If you are worried about the well-being, or behavior, of another student, you can let someone know,” Brown wrote. “[…]Let me get rid of some worries and dispel some myths. The SOC does not ‘throw people out of school.’ This is not a disciplinary process, the Counseling Service, the Health Service, and the Office of Health Education do not inform the SOC about your confidential visits, and there is not some sort of SOC list that gets circulated around campus.”
However, the assertion that the SOCT does not force students to leave the College has been called into question by some students.
Zoe Gross ’14, who has made statements addressing concerns about ableism in the past, wrote, “To begin with, students do get thrown out of school, permanently or temporarily, because of mental health issues.”
One of the chief concerns is that the SSN appears to target students affected by mental illness. Gross addressed concerns of ableism,, “As you know, depression, anxiety, and other mental and physical health conditions are disabilities. What they are asking here is for students to tell the SOC team if they find out that a fellow student is disabled, because that student will then be ‘of concern’ and need to be monitored in some way by the administration.”
Inoa also expressed sentiments that the primary focus for the SSN is the wellbeing of students. He wrote in an emailed statement, “As hokey as it sounds the network starts with having a caring community and thankfully we have that here at Vassar.”
But some students do not agree with even the intentions behind the program. Gross commented on potentially discrimination against students based on stringent guidelines that do not represent all students with different abilities than what is often shown as able-bodied and able-minded.
“There are some people who have intrusive suicidal thoughts every day, as part of a mental health disability; they still have to get through school just like everyone else,” she wrote. “I understand that Vassar wants to err on the side of caution in terms of getting suicidal students off-campus in order to avoid lawsuits, but the result is that people who are not at risk of suicide still get sent home, just because they are experiencing symptoms of their disability.”
According to Brown, the SSN agreed that the name needed to be changed after students raised concerns that the team was focusing on targeting so-called students of concern rather than supporting students most in need of help.
“Almost all colleges have some form of this group, and originally we felt that “SOC” with it’s emphasis on “Concern” was more in line with what Vassar was trying to do, namely provide a way of getting help to students whom other students, or other members of the community, were worried about,” wrote Brown. “Some students have expressed the concern, however, that the name may be problematic since it could be interpreted as focusing on who is being labelled a ‘student of concern,’ rather than on the support being offered.”
Some student suggestions for how to improve the SSN do not include a name change, however. Rather, there is a push for greater transparency in the actual purpose that the team serves and how it acts to allow students to be as educated as possible regarding decisions that the College can potentially make regarding their futures at Vassar.
Gross wrote, “The SOC could put students at ease if they told us more about what it is they do, rather than insisting that they don’t do certain things. All they say in the email is that they will ‘act’ in an emergency and that they ‘usually follow up with’ the students who are reported on. It is not unreasonable for Vassar students, especially disabled students, to be suspicious of the SOC if its procedures are unknown.”