The Student Support Network (SSN), Vassar College’s behavioral monitoring system, is designed to critically respond to students the school deems concerning or in need of help. The SSN focuses its attentions on the behaviors of students on campus who appear to be at risk to themselves or others, whose academic situation is dire, who are experiencing significant personal problems, or whose behavior is alarming other members of the college community.
Overseen by the Dean of Students, D.B. Brown, the group is comprised at its core by administrators including the Dean of Studies, Director of ResLife and Director of Counseling Services, although other administrators may join on as deemed appropriate.
The SSN may first encounter a student if their behavior is egregious. Generally, students that interact with the SSN are failing multiple courses or have gone to the hospital several times due to drug or alcohol use. After receiving a tip from the SSN, the Dean of Students may initiate an evaluation process upon which the student will receive notice of their behavioral assessment.
After the evaluation is completed, the SSN may allow students to stay on campus, with or without conditional counseling or other services or, at most severe, ask students to leave campus. The Administration makes it clear that the decision to send students home and, more generally, the support network, are not meant to be punitive.
We at the Miscellany News believe the Administration misconceives the problem. Despite the assertion that involuntary leaves are not a punishment, many students still perceive the process as a harshly negative consequence. The real issue is that the Student Support Network’s (SSN) evaluation of the student’s condition is flawed and, as a result, the choice to send students home is made too often and largely does more harm than good to the student in question.
In the current system of evaluating and resolving students problems, the incumbent Dean of Students is the sole decision-maker. After an evaluation of the student performed by either the Counseling Center or a third party that the student chooses, Brown decides how to best support the student. If he feels that the College is unable to accommodate the needs of the student, they may be sent home.
The Counseling Center may suggest solutions, but ultimately Brown alone holds control over students’ futures. How can one person have the power to determine one individual’s educational prospects? We at the Miscellany News are frustrated by the Dean of Student’s structural power and singular control of the involuntary leave decision.
Two years ago the Miscellany News explored similar questions. How does the SSN work? How are the results of evaluations used to determine whether or not students should be sent home? How often do students get sent home? Why is there a seeming lack of transparency on these issues? What is the Counseling Center’s process of evaluating someone? Why isn’t there a set standard for the amount of notice students receive regarding their need to move?
At a college with such a high endowment, there should be many solutions to the real obstacles students encounter in their academic and social lives. Yet the fact that involuntary leaves exist as a solution in any notable number suggests that the College has not thought critically enough about how to best offer resources to students in need. Taking a semester off is the last thing that many students want, and in many cases, student voices are not represented. Being sent home can also be extremely detrimental to a student’s well-being.
From a mental health standpoint, the decision to send students home can be dangerous to their health. There may be external factors, like a toxic home environment, that make a break from Vassar a less-than-comforting proposal. Whereas students at Vassar have access to Metcalf and various support systems when they need help, they may not have those back at home.
This problem is amplified for students who are on financial aid, and low-income students in general, who are unable to access resources at home because of the cost. But concerns about the world outside of Vassar also directs our attention to the possible inadequacies of Vassar itself. Why is it that we still see students being dispelled from campus at the same time that Metcalf has been growing in staff?
If the College is expanding in an effort to better respond to the needs of its residents and students, why do they still opt to send away anyone who might present more complex challenges for them? From a student’s perspective, the decision to send students home due to mental health issues appears to be based on liability purposes first and student needs second, rather than trying to help students to recover from mental health issues.
We suggest a new paradigm for the process by which students are evaluated and possibly sent home, one that focuses on educating people on how the SSN works. It should be possible to find out how the SSN works without having to set up a meeting with the Dean of Students.
Among the possible avenues for educating students, ResLife–including House Teams and particularly Student Fellows–should be an important part of the process. Student Fellows have been advised to report students to the SSN, as explained by Brown, if they “are worried about the well-being, or behavior, of another student.” (The Miscellany News, “SOCT to address student concerns,” 11.13.13).
Student Fellows are expected to report students who show concerning signs, but without understanding the system, they cannot know for sure what comes after their initial report. Without this knowledge, how can Student Fellows and other figures on House Team do what is best for the students they are there to help? How they can continue to provide support to a student in need if they don’t fully understand the administrative process the student is going through?
All students should be informed of these processes. Those reporting students should know how the process works in addition to the possible outcomes. Starting at freshman orientation, administrators could easily teach students the processes behind the SSN with little required effort. The information should also be placed on the Dean of Students’ website.
We at the Miscellany News support the purpose of the SSN, but feel that the execution and understanding of the student body is lacking. Among other things, we believe that transparency is crucial to the functionality of the SSN. Understanding how and why students are sent away is critical for the health and happiness of the campus at large.
—The Staff Editorial represents the opinions of at least 2/3 of our Editorial Board.