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How Should Schools Deal with Students’ Lives Outside of Classrooms?

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Tension exists in American education about how much responsibility institutions should have over the lives of their students.

In loco parentis, the idea that administrators act “in the place of the parent,” has risen and fallen, at least as a legal concept. Gone are the days when headmasters control every aspect of a student’s life, including what restaurants and businesses they could visit. But the debate about the role they ought to play in the lives of their students is ongoing.

It’s visible in questions about how colleges ought to police fraternities that misbehave. Should they have a hands-off approach, so as to avoid liability if disaster – like the death of a student – strikes? Or should they take an active role in ensuring that disaster doesn’t strike? Pennsylvania State University did the latter after the death of Timothy Piazza, a sophomore engineering student, in a 2017 hazing incident. The university implemented sweeping oversight of its fraternities and sororities to crack down on hazing, sexual assault and alcohol abuse.

In loco parentis was in the backdrop of an important recent Supreme Court case in which justices ruled 8-1 that a high school didn’t have the right to punish a student for her profane off-campus rant, at least if it doesn’t affect the classroom.

But the relationship between administrators and students isn’t characterized only by authority and punishment, but also student support and success. The student affairs profession is relatively new, taking off only in the 20th century. Colonial-era colleges had live-in teachers who had total authority over their students. But as professors increasingly developed subject-matter expertise, they no longer had the time or will to be responsible for the non-academic development of their charges. This led to creation of a new class of professionals who could free up professors’ time for their niche pursuits.

Near the turn of the 20th century, Harvard and other colleges started creating dean positions that focused on student personnel issues. A landmark report from the American Council on Education in 1937, The Student Personnel Point of View, advocated for the intellectual, spiritual and personal development of each student. This report was the philosophical pillar of the profession as it stands today, according to research on the history of the profession by Dallas Long, a library dean at Illinois State University.

A series of legal rulings in the 1960s, amid a surge of social change and student activism, further eroded in loco parentis as a legal concept. Alabama State College expelled a group of Black students for protesting after they were denied service at a lunch grill in Montgomery. An appellate court in Dixon vs. Alabama, in 1961, ruled the students were denied due process. That decision and a series of others in the years ahead broke colleges’ iron grip on the lives of their students. Since then, a somewhat new version of in loco parentis has risen, this one more attitudinal than legal.

“Past versions,” wrote the Chronicle of Higher Education, “were paternalistic, but the new version is driven by tuition-payers’ expectations, colleges’ concerns about legal liability, shifting cultural and social norms, and an evolving understanding of human development.”

In the modern era of student life, the connection between support services and student success has been made explicitly clear. Students need more than great classroom instruction to succeed. They need meals, health care, mental wellness, and digital tools and equipment. It’s a trend that will likely be accelerated by the pandemic, which caused countless colleges to create basic needs funds for vulnerable students and rethink how they support their students. Colleges have become more intentional about mentoring, especially peer mentoring, as a student-success strategy. In schools and colleges, this is the equity era of student life.

All decisions are now against the backdrop of what they’ll mean for a more fair educational experience for all students. And that’s also a helpful lens through which to approach education coverage: What will this decision mean for vulnerable and struggling students?