Regarding student safety, mental health, wellness, & the disciplinary system

Chancellor Todd Roberts sent the following message to residential students and families on May 5, 2022:

Dear NCSSM students,

As I continue to listen to student concerns about student safety, mental health, wellness, the disciplinary system and its application, and other important matters, I want to emphasize how deeply I and my colleagues share the underlying values from which student concerns spring.

In particular, I agree wholeheartedly with every word of this thesis statement from the letter of concern: “We as students have a right to feel safe on campus. Victims of sexual assault have the right to seek support and to feel safe in their living environment. Students have the right to be treated fairly in disciplinary matters. Prospective students and families as well as current students and families all have the right to understand how the mental health needs of students are addressed on campus.”

You can find many similar statements in our school’s guiding documents. Our Strategic Plan section on mission, beliefs, and parameters states, “The best interest of students will always be given the highest priority in decision-making,” and, “We will always provide safe, secure, supportive environments for living, learning, and working.” The Student Handbook proclaims, “The NCSSM Student Support System is designed to provide students with the support and resources necessary to adjust to life at NCSSM, to embrace and overcome challenges inside and outside the classroom, and to thrive at NCSSM and beyond.”

These are not just words.

Over the nearly 12 years of my tenure at the school, we have partnered with employees, faculty, students, and the Board of Trustees to work to make improvements in each of these areas. Much has changed and improved in recent years that current students may not be aware of. Long before the concerns were raised this academic year, a number of initiatives have been underway that are designed to do more and better in these areas. A very important example is our redesign of the student disciplinary process, which began with attendance violations being removed from that system in fall 2020 and has continued this academic year with the development of an entirely new supportive framework in consultation with students and others, which we are proposing to the Board of Trustees to replace the “levels” system. You will find more details below.

We are always looking for ways to improve based on feedback we receive and our own planning processes. Over the years the school has added many valuable resources to support student safety and wellness – doing so significantly recently. Far from demonstrating indifference or disregard for students, NCSSM’s record of action demonstrates deep concern for and longstanding commitment to addressing these vital issues of life in community together in the residential program.

So, with apologies for the length of this email, I’d like to take some time to share and review here many of the things we have done, are doing, and will do to care for, protect, and support students effectively in several aspects of life. This has always been and remains our most important job as a school.

Title IX

I hear particular frustration with the Title IX process and some of its requirements with regard to addressing allegations of sexual misconduct. Title IX is a federal law prohibiting discrimination on the basis of sex in educational programs, and the regulations prescribing what educational institutions must do to comply with the law in cases of sexual misconduct on campus are complex. A copy of the current federal Title IX regulations, which were adopted in 2020 and are likely to be substantially revised in the near future, can be found here. These requirements, which govern the type of information necessary to file a formal complaint under Title IX, how parties are notified of allegations requiring Title IX processes, how investigations are handled, and how confidentiality is addressed throughout the process, in addition to many other things, are federally mandated. It is our legal obligation to ensure that we adhere to these regulations. Various aspects of this framework may be frustrating to many in the community. Yet we are required to operate within the same system as thousands of other U.S. educational institutions. Though confidentiality requirements mean we cannot publicly discuss how individual allegations are addressed, it is inaccurate to suggest that the school disregards or fails to take seriously any such reports.  

Because addressing sexual misconduct charges under Title IX has been a complex and rapidly changing area of federal law and regulation over the past decade, we have been diligently reviewing and revising our school process along the way in order to conform to those changes. We expect further major revisions of these regulations to be issued by the federal government within the next month or so, which will likely result in more changes on our campuses. All of this complexity is augmented by a recently passed state law that requires the mandatory reporting to law enforcement of allegations of certain sexual crimes against minors, a requirement we have trained every single NCSSM employee on in the past year.

NCSSM has had only a small number of formally reported Title IX cases in the past decade.  Employees are required to report any allegations of sexual harassment that come to their attention, and we strongly encourage all members of the community to report unsafe and illegal behaviors of any kind, including cases covered by Title IX.

While we begin every year with Title IX education for students and employees and Residential Education classes on consent and healthy relationships for juniors, it is clear that the school community would like to see more. We are gathering suggestions and planning additional training sessions throughout the year to better educate students and employees about our policies and develop a more robust prevention education program. 

Mental Health, Wellness, and Suicide Prevention

Self-harm and suicide are serious and frightening topics. These issues are more prevalent nationally among teenagers than many realize. The United States finds itself facing a crisis in adolescent mental health and wellbeing. In fact, an email received just this week from The Chronicle for Higher Education promotes a special report they have published, “Mental Health Concerns on Campus,” noting that “students of all ages are more distressed than ever before and increasing numbers are enrolling with mental-health histories … Counseling-center directors and other clinicians who work with students are seeing a significant increase in anxiety, depression, and behavioral disorders, prompting … leaders to look for strategies to support mental health.”

While the pandemic has negatively affected mental health – with some studies estimating a 25% increase in mental health needs – mental health needs were already on the rise before the pandemic. The CDC’s National Youth Risk Behavior Surveillance Data Summary & Trends Report: 2009-2019 reported that in 2019, about 37% of high school students had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, 19% had seriously considered attempting suicide, 16% had made a suicide plan, and 9% attempted suicide in the past year. Additionally, the use of alcohol, vaping, and drugs has increased, which can worsen symptoms associated with depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. NCSSM counselors are committed to providing compassionate, personalized mental health and wellness care for all of our students. Counselors care deeply about students and come to work every day to support them. As of today, 3,450 student visits have been documented in the counseling office for the 21-22 academic year. Students have seen a counselor for personal, academic, and college and career counseling, as well as for support related to accessibility services. 

As mental health needs have increased, so has the counseling office’s response. In 2017, Counseling Services began partnering with UNC-Chapel Hill and added a counseling intern to the team. In 2021, the partnership grew with the addition of a second intern from North Carolina Central University. The counseling interns have become an integral part of the counseling staff and provide personal, academic, and college counseling to students, as well as overseeing the Counseling January Term and other programming.

In 2018, Counseling began specializing services to meet the increasing personal, academic, and college planning needs of students. Instead of each student only having one assigned counselor, students were given the opportunity to be referred to one of two personal counselors who could assist students experiencing significant and/or chronic emotional needs. This was made possible by turning a part-time position into a full-time counselor position in 2015 and securing new funding and hiring an additional, full-time counselor to the department in 2018.

Counseling Services has always had an on-call counselor for after-hours crisis care. In the spring of 2021, NCSSM began partnering with ProtoCall (a telephone crisis service used in the UNC System) to enhance our existing after-hours mental health crisis support for students. ProtoCall provides crisis assessment, intervention, and stabilization through a licensed professional staff, notifying NCSSM Counseling Services when necessary.

In February 2022, Counseling added a part-time evening counselor to the team. This new position enhanced student support by increasing the number of available appointment times for students Monday through Thursday. The evening counselor has consistently had available appointments since arriving. This has alleviated wait times, with students being able to make a same-day appointment. Additionally, counselors continue to see students without an appointment to meet student needs.

During this school year, NCSSM applied for and was awarded $122,000 in grant money to help students with financial challenges or other barriers seek and receive therapy and psychoeducational testing from outside providers free of charge to families. Counseling is contracting with eight licensed mental health professionals who provide ongoing and crisis mental health services. One of the grants has also funded mental health interpreting services and will pay for the translation of counseling documents.

In 2022, as part of an ongoing effort to address rising mental health needs among students, the University of North Carolina System offered Mental Health First Aid training for staff, faculty, students, and campus police across the state. One of our personal counselors recently completed the instructor training and is now able to provide this training to the adults on NCSSM’s campus. Mental Health First Aid refers to initial support offered to someone struggling with a mental health challenge or a substance abuse issue. The training is designed to help individuals who do not have a professional background in mental health recognize the signs of an emerging issue and provide effective, early support to students or colleagues. At any given time, students are more likely to have direct contact on campus with peers, instructors, or other support staff than with a licensed and trained mental health professional. Ensuring that more people have Mental Health First Aid training is a way to build a more alert, more caring campus culture.

While I agree that it is vital and healthy to communicate openly about these issues, we must always take great care to preserve the confidentiality of students and their families in our relatively small school community. I can explain, though, how we address someone who becomes a danger to themselves or others and we are unable to provide the level of care and supervision that is needed. A care process is enacted to support the student. Since NCSSM is not a mental health treatment facility, students may need to be at home or go to a hospital during these times to be supervised and receive a psychological assessment and treatment. Students’ physical safety and emotional and psychological wellbeing are our most important considerations. With that in mind, we do all that we can to support a student during the care process and after the student has been deemed safe to return to campus via a collaboration with the student, family, mental health professionals, and school staff. Once a student returns to campus, an individualized support plan is created to outline student care, as well as counseling and academic support and services. NCSSM’s Counseling Services closely tracks mental health data that we are made aware of; however, the information is not publicized to protect the confidentiality and privacy of the student and their families. This data is reviewed regularly and used to make informed decisions on how to increase resources and support of our students.

Counselors will continue to work with students and the rest of the NCSSM community to support their needs. Students do not have to face their challenges alone. Their counselors, as well as their Community Coordinator and members of the Center for Advising and Academic Success team are here to help and want to help. For more information on Counseling Services and internal and external mental health resources, please visit the NCSSM Counseling Website.

Code of Student Conduct 

The goal of student discipline is to uphold our community standards and the guidelines designed to keep students safe and well, not to arbitrarily enforce rules for rules’ sake. It is illegal and dangerous, for example, for minors to consume alcohol, as this can lead to alcohol poisoning or risky behavior that endangers student safety; this is why we respond immediately any time we receive a report that students are violating the prohibition against alcohol on campus. We rely on the Code of Student Conduct to help students understand what we expect of them while in our community and to proactively inform them of what happens if we need to address conduct that falls short of those expectations, in terms of process, consequences, and rights. The Code of Student Conduct is also the document that grounds all decisions to charge misconduct made by the Community Conduct Committee, a five-person committee that includes Deans of Students and Associate Vice Chancellors for Academic Programs. There is no lead or sole “disciplinary coordinator.” This committee makes decisions by consensus around what would be best for the students involved and for our community as well as what is supported by the Code. 

As I mentioned above, we’re nearing the end of an almost yearlong process of revising our student disciplinary process, which will be the twentieth revision of the Code of Student Conduct since its initial approval by the Board of Trustees in 1984. We review the Code of Student Conduct on a regular basis to make sure that it speaks to our present-day aspirations and expectations for our community and meets the needs of students. Most of our revisions are significant but fairly straightforward updates, like removing unexcused absences and tardies from the disciplinary process or allowing Level 3 hearings to be completed via videoconference instead of requiring them in person. This year’s review was an opportunity to take a more substantive look at how we address misconduct and to re-center the resolution of the conduct process on the student’s role in and impact on our community. This thoughtful approach has led to many conversations and presentations with constituent groups like Student Government, Faculty Senate, Staff Senate, and the Parent Association Executive Committee. Feedback from these sessions, especially from students, was crucial in helping us understand if we were clearly communicating our intentions when it comes to student conduct and whether the discipline process was becoming more transparent and understandable. 

This March, the proposed changes to the Code of Student Conduct were presented to the Board of Trustees’ Educational Policies & Practices Committee, who in turn voted to recommend its adoption at the full Board of Trustees meeting in May. If the revised Code of Student Conduct is approved, we will host an information session for the rising seniors on May 17 from 7-8 p.m. in the Lecture Hall to discuss the major changes and their intended impacts and the rationale for this year’s review as well as answer any questions or concerns you have about the newly revised Code. 

One of the long-term goals to come out of this year’s review is to create practices to share outcomes from our conduct process in a way that protects students’ privacy while also providing some transparency and accountability. For example, I can share with you that in the five academic years between 2015 and 2020, on average, just about 11% of the student body in a given year was charged with a Level 2 or a Level 3. For those same years, less than 7% of all students had two or more Level 2s and/or 3s. With our student body’s constant two-year turnover and in the absence of accurate, reliable information, it can be easy for misinformation or folklore about the student discipline process to spread. We have room to grow in providing those data to our community members in a responsive way.

Academic supports

Both before the pandemic and during it, administrators, faculty, and staff spent countless hours adjusting how we support students with the goal of their academic success, which plays a large part in students’ overall success. In summer 2020, we established the Center for Advising and Academic Success, or CAAS, to replace the previous system of academic advising per our NCSSM strategic plan. The CAAS faculty advising team is a group of well-trained advisors who collaborate with other supports (families, counseling, instructors, and Community Coordinators) to provide advising services tailored to student needs such as academic support plans, academic skills training, or course selection.

In fall 2020, NCSSM implemented a new academic calendar and weekly timetable designed to help reduce student stress. The return to semesters reduced the number of transitions throughout the academic year and enabled faculty and students to develop stronger relationships. The new weekly timetable featured an 8:30 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. start time for classes and the implementation of flexible use time where students have unscheduled time during the class schedule each week. The maximum weekly class engagement time (combined in and out of class) was reduced from 11 hours for some core classes to 8 hours for all core classes. Flexible use time is intended to give students time to exercise; to attend tutorials or office hours; or to engage in other self-care, extracurricular, or academic activities. The new academic calendar expanded our previous Mini-Term to a month-long January Term experience offering a wide variety of experiences with a more flexible schedule allowing for more time outdoors and off campus during some of the shortest days of the year.

To address additional wellness needs, the maximum weekly class engagement time was further reduced to 7 hours per week for core classes for the entire 2021-2022 academic year. Each academic department created a comprehensive plan for offering support to students (e.g., faculty office hours, TA availability, tutorials) and implemented listening sessions to collect student feedback. Academic Support Days were offered in Spring 2020 to allow students time to complete outstanding coursework with faculty support readily available. We continued to offer these support days in the fall and spring semesters at students’ request. In response to additional student requests, Academic Support Days will be redistributed next year to create a week-long College Planning Week/Fall Break in early October. 

Over the past two years since attendance was removed from the Code of Conduct, the Academic Programs team collected feedback from students, faculty, and leadership and revised attendance regulations with the goals of improving consistency in reporting and supporting students. 

Finally, Academic Programs has worked tirelessly with the UNC System over the last two years on policies that many students say ease the stress of college application season: guaranteed admission to any UNC System school and expanded articulation agreements to give students college credit for courses taken at NCSSM. And we also continue to offer a robust financial assistance program to provide support and reduce stress for students whose families are experiencing financial hardships. 

Community engagement, collaborative governance, and outside review

I seek to lead NCSSM in a collaborative way. To do this, members of our school leadership team and I meet regularly with students, including Student Government leaders and other community leaders, and I believe strongly in a model of shared school governance in which Student Government, Faculty Senate, and Staff Senate all play a vital role of helping to suggest changes and solve problems in ways that meet the needs of their members. Similarly, our school Leadership Team and I collaborate regularly with the Board of Trustees, Parent Association, Alumni Association, NCSSM Foundation, Campaign Steering Committee, Board of Visitors, Strategic Planning Committee, and other groups.

We also discipline ourselves as an institution to undertake regular reviews, formal and informal, of our policies and processes. Our school accreditation by Cognia, formerly AdvancED, which is required every five years, is an example of a formal review that examines nearly every policy and process, from governance to grading to curriculum to communications. We also conduct formal reviews of our emergency preparedness, including crisis response exercises. We undergo more frequent informal reviews, optionally working with our UNC System and secondary STEM school peers to examine and benchmark nearly every aspect of our operations.  

Finally, I welcome any student, parent, alumnus, or other constituent or stakeholder to meet with me to discuss any topic, as do all of my colleagues. We invite feedback, dialogue, and authentic learning opportunities that inform our work at NCSSM.

Whether in regard to the difficult topic of sexual assault, or the routine collaboration required to operate a school, we will continue to keep our doors, minds and hearts open to feedback from students and other members of the NCSSM community. As I’ve stated previously, our community greatly respects and values students seeking to use their voices to create positive change in their community and in the world, which is, in fact, a realization of the values we teach at NCSSM. I encourage all of us to continue this conversation in full, devoting the time and effort it takes to do so through all difficulty and complexity, and upholding the highest standards of integrity, fairness, accountability, and respect for others.



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