Skip to Navigation
University of Pittsburgh
Print This Page Print this pages

February 3, 2011

Mental Health in the Classroom:

University experts advise how to deal with troubled students

Calls to the University Counseling Center tend to increase after reports of campus violence elsewhere — such as the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007 and at Northern Illinois University in 2008 — turn public attention to students who have exhibited frightening, bizarre or destructive behavior.

Calls have risen again in the wake of the Jan. 8 shooting in Tucson in which six people were killed and Arizona congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was wounded, said University Counseling Center director James Cox.

James Cox

James Cox

While the Tucson violence did not occur on a college campus, the suspect in custody had exhibited bizarre behavior and had been suspended from Pima Community College in October after violating the school’s conduct code.

“People’s antennae are up,” Cox said, adding, “We are seeing more students, although we are not seeing more who are a danger to others.” In each of the past two years, more than 3,000 students have been seen at the center.

Calls to the center more often focus on concerns about a student’s own safety, Cox said, noting that while counseling center staff are cognizant of the potential for violent behavior, it is much less likely that a student would pose a risk to someone else.

“We’ve always gotten calls when people have concerns about students,” he said. “We get a lot of calls from faculty and staff.”

Cox said callers often assume that the student they are concerned about is not getting help. “That may not be the case,” he said. Should a caller inquire about whether a student is being seen, the counseling center may not be able to say, he noted, citing confidentiality considerations. Most students will permit some information to be shared, Cox said. If the student agrees, the counseling center may be able to tell the caller who referred a student how things went. “If they say no, then we can’t,” Cox said.


Privacy laws have their limits, however, particularly when campus safety may be at stake.

Following the shootings at Virginia Tech, new federal guidance on Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) laws was published to better balance safety and privacy.

Shawn E. Brooks, associate dean of students and director of Residence Life, noted for instance that in cases of violations of drug or alcohol laws or situations in which a student poses a threat to himself or others, FERPA doesn’t apply and otherwise private information may be shared with parents or appropriate others. Additionally, if a student is claimed as a dependent, FERPA doesn’t prevent the University from sharing information with the student’s parents, Brooks said.

Shawn Brooks

Shawn Brooks

“I’d rather defend a violation of FERPA than be accused of not communicating effectively with a parent,” Brooks said, inviting faculty or staff with questions on where to draw the line to contact his office.


Brooks observed, “Anytime there is a national tragedy of the magnitude of Virginia Tech or Arizona, peoples’ sensitivities are very heightened around students’ peculiar or threatening behavior.”

The downside, he said, is that “we get lulled into a false sense of security once the issues fade from our mind.”

The ongoing message from the University administration is: Communicate.

Plenty of help is available on campus and communication is key when a student displays behavioral or mental health problems.

“When in doubt, consult,” stated Kathy Humphrey, vice provost and dean of students, in a memo sent to faculty at the beginning of the academic year. “We need to be prepared to recognize potential threats and take appropriate action when necessary.

“We have all seen that tragedies at schools and universities are often sad lessons if the possible consequences of mental health and behavioral problems are left unaddressed,” said Humphrey in the message that called attention to the University’s Faculty and Staff Guide for Helping Distressed Students.

The guide, available in the resources section at or at, covers concerns ranging from dealing with angry students to substance abuse and suicide and includes emergency phone numbers for on- and off-campus resources.

Brooks said, “It’s all of our jobs when dealing with the student population. It’s not just about the student who may be troubled or acting out, it’s about the community and the other students who are impacted by that behavior as well.”

Whom to call

Even if the behavior is merely odd rather than threatening, “It’s perfectly acceptable to call the counseling center,” Brooks said.

“Weird is not against the law,” said Cox, but if a student’s behavior is questionable, faculty and staff are urged to call for advice.

“If there is a question, perhaps in something a student has written, or emailed, send a copy to the counseling center,” he said.

“Anytime that any student rises to the level that we’re concerned for their safety, action is taken. We don’t ignore it,” Cox said, noting that a counseling center staffer is on call 24 hours a day. He advised members of the campus community to call the campus police if a student clearly poses a danger to himself or others.

Cox offered some simple advice on where to turn:

• If the situation crosses the line into an immediate safety concern, call the police.

• If it’s a mental health issue, call the counseling center.

• If it’s a behavioral issue, call the Office of Student Conduct.

Code of Conduct

The Student Code of Conduct states that any member of the University community who feels they have been wronged due to a violation of the code may schedule a meeting with the student conduct officer or a designee to discuss the situation. They also may file a judicial referral with the Office of Student Conduct, which sets in motion a hearing process. Details are outlined in the code, which can be found online at

The code allows faculty and staff broad leeway in filing judicial charges based on a student’s behavior, Cox said. “Any inappropriate behavior on the part of a student can be a violation.”

Among the listed offenses is failure “without just cause to comply with the lawful direction of a University official acting in the performance of their duties and authority.” In this context, Cox noted, “official” applies to all faculty or staff, noting that an employee may file a complaint if, for instance, a student is harassing someone in their department or refuses to leave an office when asked.

Brooks noted that most judicial board actions involve alcohol or drug use and only a “very minimal” number involve threatening behavior.

Student conduct officer Deborah Walker confirmed such incidents are “isolated.”

Walker said she advises anyone with concerns for the safety of a faculty or staff member or students to call the campus police. Sometimes, police will file a judicial referral with her office, but if the situation doesn’t rise to the level at which police would be involved, Walker said, anyone affiliated with the University could file it.

Deborah Walker

Deborah Walker

Cox noted that the judicial board may determine that the student needs a mental health evaluation.

A judicial complaint triggers safeguards, Brooks said. In an egregious situation in which a member of the University community feels threatened, a no-contact order or interim suspension could be issued.

“We want to make sure people feel as safe as they possibly can on campus,” Brooks said, adding, “If someone is intimidating, frightening or aggressive, we need to intervene.”

In the case of a no-contact order, the individuals involved are informed that the order is in place and that no contact — face-to-face or electronic — is permitted.

If the order is violated, police would be called and additional judicial action — and possibly legal action — could follow, he said.

The University errs on the side of safety, Brooks said. He declined to specify how often no-contact orders have been issued, except to say the occurrences are not unusual for a campus of Pitt’s size. “It does happen multiple times but not weekly or monthly,” Brooks said.

Disability and conduct

Disability has been redefined to include a number of so-called “hidden” disabilities. Attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, learning disabilities and psychological disorders made up the top three disabilities first-time college students disclosed in a 2010 Freshman National Norms survey. (See related story, this issue.)

Standard language on course syllabi at Pitt typically states that students who are requesting an accommodation for a disability are to contact both their instructor and Disability Resources and Services, which verifies the disability and determines reasonable accommodations for the course.

Information regarding a student’s disability is confidential, but disability status does not give carte blanche with regard to behavior. Pitt’s disability policies acknowledge that while students with disabilities have rights, they also have the responsibility to meet the University’s standards for academic performance and conduct.

Although a student’s diagnosis may explain certain behaviors, “It’s not an excuse for violation of the code,” Brooks said.

Lynette Van Slyke, director of Pitt’s Disability Resources and Services office, concurred. “Disability doesn’t exclude them from that standard,” she said.

“It’s important to remember we need to treat our students equally — no better, no worse — because of disability status,” Van Slyke said, adding that a student with a disability still can have bad behavior. “If a student’s behavior is aggressive or inappropriate, call them on that,” she said.

Lynette Van Slyke

Lynette Van Slyke

“If a teacher is seeing behavior that’s problematic, distressing, concerning or odd, the most important thing they can do is see if it’s disruptive to the academic community,” she said. If so, they need to set in motion the judicial process.

“Some students exhibit behavior that doesn’t — or shouldn’t — disrupt the academic community or learning environment, but may be seen as different or odd,” she said. That could range from carrying multiple garbage bags full of items or having a dazed appearance due to medications, to blurting out off-topic answers or engaging in strong repetitive habits.

“We really rely on the instructor to be the one to determine if behavior in the classroom is disrupting the learning environment,” Van Slyke said.

If the behavior doesn’t rise to the level of conduct violation and the student provides notification of a disability, it prompts an interactive dialogue among the student, instructor and a disability specialist to come up with a plan to meet everyone’s needs.

Disclosure of the disability is an option, although it’s not always necessary or advisable, she said.

“We teach students to advocate for themselves on a case-by-case basis when accommodation is necessary,” she said.

For instance, a student with autism may fail to read social cues in a group. That could be resolved by making the group smaller, or by agreeing on a discreet hand signal the professor could use to alert the student when behavior is inappropriate.

In a case in which a student had profound motor tics that surfaced when making a presentation, “We had to talk about educating the community about the non-typical behaviors that were going to occur that could potentially be quite frightening,” Van Slyke said. “It depends on the behavior, the class and the dynamic.”

Van Slyke pointed out that odd behavior isn’t always an indicator of disability. Students can choose to present themselves in a way that makes them appear different, without any diagnostic category, she said. Furthermore, different doesn’t always have to equal scary, she said.

“If you feel that someone is disruptive to the learning community, use the appropriate resources,” she said.

Discussing troubled students

Following the shootings at Virginia Tech, Pitt formalized a group that had been meeting informally to share information on troubled students, said Brooks, who chairs the Caring for At-Risk Students, or CARS committee. The group, which meets weekly, includes representatives from across the University: Pitt police, Athletics, Veterans Affairs, all the Student Affairs departments including Residence Life, the University Counseling Center, Student Health (represented both by a doctor for the medical side and a drug/alcohol counselor, Brooks noted), International Services, Cross Cultural and Leadership Development, Disability Services and Student Conduct.

“If a student crosses our radar as either being a potential threat to himself or others or exhibits behavior of concern, we’ll bring up the student’s name and the reasons behind the discussion,” Brooks said, adding that should a specific student come to the attention of multiple representatives, deeper discussion would be warranted.

The committee is not intended just for dealing with threatening behavior. Many situations could cause a student to be mentioned — someone dealing with the death of a loved one, a residence hall resident who has been taken to the hospital, a student who had recent contact with police — all may be brought up to the group to provide a baseline of understanding across various areas.

“We want everyone at the table to know what everyone knows,” Brooks noted, adding, “A lot of times we find referrals already have been made.”

Should a student be acting out in a peculiar way, regardless of whether a threat is involved, Brooks urged faculty and staff to filter the situation through the lens of possibility: “What is the possibility that this student needs some kind of assistance?”

Brooks reiterated that the University has a broad safety net of professionals available to intervene with at-risk students. “I want faculty and staff to know they don’t have to be the sole arbiter of when to get involved,” Brooks said. “Think about the well-being of the campus population and our students. When you feel something isn’t right, don’t sit on that information. Pass it along.”

Kimberly K. Barlow & Peter Hart

Leave a Reply