I should just blow my brains out.
The instructor freezes in place. ‘What? Did I hear that? Maybe not. I’ll just keep passing out papers. After all, this is the first time this student has concerned me. Pretty volatile words though, right? Remain calm. Probably just letting off steam? Was that a viable threat? Yes? No?’
Thoughts like those might run through the mind of the inexperienced, but this vigilant Tarrant County College faculty member, recognizing the potential danger, proactively referred the student to the TCC CARE Team, a behavioral intervention team (BIT). TCC’s BIT, available on each Tarrant County College campus to help students in distress, was so named to clearly delineate its purpose — Consultation, Assessment, Resources and Education (CARE).
Once the referral was initiated, help was on the way. “After meeting with the student and learning that there were no intentions of self-harm, I was able to help the student,” said TCC Northwest CARE Team member and counselor Brentom E. Jackson, M.A., LPC. “We took a holistic approach. Our health clinic helped monitor medication. Our SARS (Student Accessibility Resources) office made sure there were appropriate classroom and campus accommodations. As the counselor, I provided a space for the student to sit and open up about all the challenges faced.”
Every student referred to a TCC CARE Team receives this type of responsive, thorough, individual attention. Team members diligently devote hours reviewing cases and conducting research so they are prepared to make informed decisions about each need at their weekly meetings. TCC CARE Teams’ recommendations often provide students their first introduction to TCC resources and services they could have been using since they became a TCC student.
“CARE Team referrals from faculty are a best practice and a type of ‘Early Alert’ for students in danger of stopping or dropping out. Through CARE team members, these students are provided with resources that will help them be successful in their classes and complete their courses of study,” said TCC Northwest Vice President of Student Development Services (SDS) Joe Rode, Ph.D., LPC, one of the co-chairs for the task force charged in 2013 to create TCC’s uniform, consistent behavioral intervention reporting network for all campuses.
Each CARE Team consists of the respective campus’ vice president for Student Development Services, director of Student Support/Conduct and Prevention Education, a counselor, the director of Counseling, a member of the campus police, a faculty member, a representative from Academic Affairs, the SAR coordinator and a representative from Student Life.
“Established to intervene when students pose a threat to themselves or the campus community, we have grown and expanded our services not only to intervene in situations that might pose a threat, but to also assist students with everyday struggles, such as housing, food or financial insecurities, struggling with depression or simply needing help navigating a stressful situation,” said Belinda Lopez, TCC South CARE Team co-chair and director of Student Support/Conduct and Prevention Education. “I think it has become a true CARE team because of the nature of who TCC is, a community college serving all members of the community, regardless of where they are in their lives. I believe the CARE team closes the loop on all the services offered to students.”
The nationwide proliferation of BITs on college and universities campuses can be traced to April 16, 2007, when “the world changed forever for colleges throughout America,” Rode said.
That morning, Seung-Hui Cho entered West Ambler Johnson Hall and Norris Hall at the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va. He chained the doors behind him and shot 49 people on campus with two semi-automatic pistols, killing 32 and wounding 17 others before killing himself.
“Although Cho was well-known on campus and had come to the attention of many individuals who expressed concerns about his erratic behavior and high levels of emotional distress, Virginia Tech administrators were later criticized for ‘failing to take action that might have reduced the number of casualties,’” Rode recalled.
He said findings after the incident indicated there may have been a different outcome had there been a team to assess threats and recommend action based on clinically and scientifically vetted threat assessment models.
Thirteen years later, the vision of TCC’s CARE Team is to create safer environments on campuses where faculty and staff are provided with an efficient way to refer students in distress or in need of college resources.
Anyone can make referrals to a CARE Team, even students, Rode said.
Whether to combat bullying, prevent violence or assist students with mental health challenges, CARE Team members serve in finding ‘preventive’ intervention resources for students before they potentially escalate and pose a threat of harm to themselves or others.
Joe Rode, Vice President of Student Development Services
The threat of students hurting themselves is real. The number of suicides at college each year is 1,100, or 7.5 per 100,000 students, according to College Degree Search (CDS) report, “Crisis on Campus: The Untold Story of Student Suicides.”
One in five college students reported thoughts of suicide in the previous year, according to a study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital, which is associated with Harvard Medical School.
The suicide rate among young adults, ages 15-24, has tripled since the 1950s, the CDS report also stated, adding that one in 12 have actually made a suicide plan at some point.
TCC Northeast Vice President for SDS and CARE Team cochair Mayra Olivares-Urueta, Ph.D., said CARE Team members are willing to work hard because we “literally save lives.”
“From addressing acute issues and concerns related to suicide ideation to providing resources to persons affected by sexual and/or domestic violence, the team provides immediate support to students in distress so they may be successfully retained at the college and in class,” said Olivares-Urueta.
“We also work to prevent escalations in the classroom… there may be times when students may become agitated for many reasons and when the CARE Team is contacted, this enables us (CARE Team) to provide support to the student while ensuring the classroom environment remains healthy and ready for learning and growth to continue,” she said.
Kecia Baker-Morris, TCC Southeast CARE Team co-chair and director of Student Support/Conduct and Prevention Education, said based on the students she sees in her role resolving student conduct issues, 95 percent of their reported negative behaviors resulted from distress.
“In this type of situation, while a student is going through the student conduct process, they are also referred to the CARE Team,” Baker-Morris said. “This provides an opportunity to show students we care for their well-being while we also hold them accountable for their behavior.”
TCC Northeast CARE Team member and dean of Mathematics and Sciences, Charlene Cole, agrees.
“The CARE Team reaffirms the precept of meeting student needs holistically. It is difficult for a student to navigate classroom activity while life problems vie for attention. The CARE Team is a crucial facet of the College’s goal of being a student ready college by identifying student needs and providing support.”
Since the inception of Care Teams at Tarrant County College in 2014, CARE Team referrals have increased dramatically from 198 in the first three semesters of the 2014-2015 school year to a cumulative total of 1,485 through fall 2018.
“I believe we are seeing an increase in the number of referrals because more faculty, staff and students are aware of the campus CARE Teams and the purpose of the CARE Teams,” said Leon Minor, CARE Team co-chair and director of Student Conduct and Prevention Education. “We share information about the CARE Teams with faculty and staff during Connections Week each fall and spring semester, along with mid-semester reminders. Students also receive information about CARE Teams during New Student Orientation.”
Condoa M. Parrent, Ed.D., TCC Northeast CARE Team member who also served on the 2013 task force charged with preparing a proposal to expand CARE Teams to each TCC campus, said she is pleased by staff and faculty involvement with CARE Teams.
“I have become increasingly proud of the staff who are dedicated to providing the care and services our students need. They consistently seek to provide services to the students to assist them in being successful in not only their educational goals, but their personal lives,” Parrent said. “I also am proud of the faculty in their growing participation in identifying students of concern and making referrals for those students.”
In addition to increased awareness resulting from strategic efforts to get the word out about CARE Teams, growth in referrals is a reflection of current times, Rode said.
“The increases will continue as I believe that our ecosystem is increasingly more fragile than ever,” Rode said, “More students are attending community colleges with unmet needs for housing, transportation, food, health care and mental health counseling, just to name a few.”
When relevant, TCC staff refer students with needs to resources in the community such as food pantries, outside counseling services, the United Way and Catholic Charities. Additionally, the College also partners with a Catholic Charities program, Stay the Course™, which can help support students when life’s challenges threaten to derail their quest to further their education.
Stay the Course™ was established as part of Catholic Charities’ shift in philosophy from “helping those in need” to “ending poverty one family at a time,” which included transitioning from offering transactional services to offering transformational services, said Judith Alexander Priest, MSLPC- S, director of client navigation for Catholic Charities.
Catholic Charities and TCC previously had worked together in a vocational program. Students pursuing certificates in high-demand careers received tuition, case management and emergency financial assistance.
“With the support of TCC leadership, we launched Stay the Course™ in 2013 at the Trinity River campus. In 2015 we expanded to the Northwest campus,” Priest said. Students at TCC Northeast, TCC South and TCC Southeast also may participate through open enrollment based on eligibility and space availability, according to a Stay the Course™ brochure.
The program is making a difference.
“After six semesters, almost 50 percent of students participating in Stay the Course™ were still enrolled at TCC, compared with less than 24 percent of the students in our control group,” Priest said, “Not only are our enrollment percentages higher, but our degree completion percentages are higher as well with 35.1 percent of students earning their degree, compared to almost no one in the control group.”
Stay the Course™ helps participants by focusing on its goal to engage, ensure and empower.
“We engage students in a collaborative partnership, so their goals can become a reality. We ensure that our clients have the necessary resources to not only survive, but to become financially secure and self-sufficient. We empower students by building on their strengths while developing new skills,” Priest said. “Students have access to one-to-one coaching and mentoring, community and social service resources and support to eliminate barriers to successfully completing college.”
Caseloads are assigned to ensure that quality case management services are received by each student, she said, adding that success is enhanced because Catholic Charities works with TCC administrators and faculty to provide seamless collaboration.
Though challenging, team members repeatedly express their gratitude for the opportunity to help students navigate life’s struggles in practical ways. Several TCC CARE Team members said they are heartened by the very students they serve, despite the emotional work.
“Every CARE referral affects me in some way. Being on the CARE Team at TCC has made me aware of some challenges our students are facing,” TCC Southeast’s Baker-Morris said. “I have grown to admire the tenacity of most of our students.”
TCC Northeast’s Parrent said the ability to help families seek shelter has been fulfilling.
“We have had multiple referrals of students who were about to be homeless. The team was able to reach out to these students and put them in touch with local agencies that could offer assistance,” Parrent said. “Many of these students had small children. These students may not know where to go for assistance, but having the ability to work with them and pair them with agencies that could assist with services is extremely rewarding.”
Seeing students succeed is important to TCC Northwest’s Jackson.
There is no prouder and more fulfilling moment than watching a student, who you know faced what seemed like insurmountable odds at one point during their education, sit in your office and tell you that they are about to graduate in May.
Brentom Jackson, CARE Team Member and Counselor
Tim Cason, M.Ed., TCC Trinity River CARE Team co-chair and director of Student Support/Conduct and Prevention Education, remembers a heartfelt email from a student.
“I really appreciate the immediate action on your part, and you just don’t know how special you are to others like me [that have experiences these situations],” the email said. “God put you in the right job field.”
“Moments like these remind me that I am working in a high-impact field that is changing people’s lives,” Cason said.
And for TCC Northwest’s Minor, it’s summed up by a coin. One of his students shared that as part of a recovery group, he is encouraged to give special coins to people who made a difference in his life. “The student gave me a coin two weeks before he graduated from TCC and transferred to a four-year institution. The statement on the coin is, ‘You make the difference.’
“I keep the coin in a case on my desk to serve as a reminder that the work we do as a CARE Team and educators truly influence the students we have the privilege to work with each day.”
Anyone who needs help or wants to seek CARE Team help for someone else may make a referral online.