Teaming up to help students

By James Hearne

Imagine this hypothetical scene: a student who was previously on course for an A in a class, abruptly stops coming to class and turning in homework with no explanation given. The student stops participating in class and just seems to have lost all interest in school. The instructor does not wish to see a bright student like this fail the course, but doesn’t know what they can do about it.

That’s where the Behavioral Intervention Team, or BIT, comes in. Made up of a wide range of occupations, including counselors, psychiatrists, disability specialists, student behavior specialists and more, the newly formed team determines if a student’s disruptive or otherwise counterproductive behavior is merely a problem of discipline, or if it could be due to mental illness, financial difficulty, personal crisis, or even domestic violence.

JT Taylor, a criminal justice instructor, is one of the eight people on the BIT. “It’s not unique to Whatcom,” he said. “Many campuses have similar teams.”           

Taylor said that the BIT is almost like a group of repairmen at a house which may need some maintenance. “You get an electrician, a plumber, and a carpenter all together and have them figure out how to fix the house.”

The process usually begins with a student behaving inappropriately in class, or otherwise displaying signs of some sort of distress, Taylor noted. “The instructor is the first line of defense in this process,” he said. If the problem is beyond the capability of the instructor, they report the behavior to the BIT, who discuss the problem and offer suggestions, or intervene more directly if necessary.

No official paperwork or formal records are kept on file for the BIT, said Trish Onion, the vice-president for educational services at Whatcom.  She said that the BIT is not for students who have violated school policy repeatedly. That is a matter for the Judicial Conduct Office, which does keep formal records, and is responsible for enforcing the Whatcom Community College Student Rights and Responsibilities.

What the BIT looks out for, Onion said, is student behavior that may not be at the point of being a serious problem, but has the potential to develop into one.

“If a student starts acting in a way that draws attention to themselves, that certainly can fall within our purview,” Onion said. “However, we also respond to staff and faculty reports of students suddenly not coming to class or not turning in homework, or other behavior that indicates that they might be suffering in silence.” This, Onion said, was the primary reason for the formation of the team.

“Our primary focus,” said Onion, “is problem solving and prevention.”

Due to confidentiality, Onion was not able to get very specific about examples of the types of cases the BIT has dealt with, but she said faculty and staff are instructed to look out for certain situations.

Personal space issues, including inappropriate touching, and unwanted communication are common, as a student may not necessarily be able to tell when they are violating someone’s boundaries. The BIT can intervene before the behavior escalates into sexual harassment.

Other red flags include English papers with violent descriptions of the deaths of characters based on real people. Some students may have active imaginations, said Onion, which they do not necessarily know how to filter.    

After the BIT determines what the problem is, Onion said, they make a recommendation as to who should take the next step, and actually talk with the student. This decision is based on who has the closest relationship with the student, or who might best be able to communicate with them. The student is made aware of the multiple resources to help them  

“Our focus,” Onion said, “is to intervene in a way that will help this student be successful.”

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