By Philip Sikes ’02, M ’04
Photography by Craig Mahaffey ’98
& Ashley Jones

The CARE Network at Clemson addresses student issues and concerns with a formal system designed to identify needs on campus

— WATCH —

Care Can’t Wait

Care Can’t Wait from Clemson University on Vimeo.

On the morning of April 16, 2007, a troubled young man at Virginia Tech shot and killed 32 people and injured 17 before turning the gun on himself. It remains the deadliest school shooting in U.S. history.

That morning forever changed higher education — particularly the way institutions document and follow up on what are called care concerns. In the months following the incident, a panel reviewed Virginia Tech’s response to the assailant’s experiences as a student. They found that good work was being done in response to troubled students, but information was often siloed among a variety of departments on campus.

“Looking at the behaviors of the student individually, it may not have seemed like a lot,” says Kimberly Poole ’95, M ’02, Ph.D ’14, Clemson’s assistant vice president and senior associate dean of students. “But when the pictures were put together, you realize they were dealing with a troubled young man.”

That finding was mirrored at colleges and universities across the country as they too began to evaluate how they responded to students in crisis. Clemson was no different.

The horrific Virginia Tech shooting was followed by one at Northern Illinois University the next year and a highly publicized student suicide at MIT the year after that. College administrators across the country were examining their own institutional practices for mental health support and follow-up.

What resulted was a broader emergence and integration of behavioral intervention and threat assessment practices. Clemson moved quickly to adopt both to see a more complete picture and address high-risk situations while continuing to find more effective ways to assist students with issues of care and concern that were impeding their college experiences.

The CARE Network at Clemson was born.

Imagine this scenario — A student who has normally been very engaged academically has not attended class in several weeks. A concerned faculty member reaches out to a trained campus professional, who meets with the student in an effort to gather more information. They learn the student has been feeling depressed and staying in bed.

The staff member initiates a response plan and refers the student to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) for assessment. Similar scenarios play out on a near-daily basis as staff members from the Office of Advocacy and Success maintain an organized system for tracking, managing and supporting students of concern — no matter the level of identified need.

It hasn’t always been that way, however. The need for robust electronic record-keeping has risen steadily over the past 15 years.

“[Previously,] we operated mostly off of calls and emails; we didn’t have a formal system in place to submit reports,” says Alesia Smith, who oversees Clemson’s Title IX efforts after a long tenure directing the conduct office. She worked with then Dean of Students Joy Smith ’75, M ’77 to find a software that interfaced care and conduct concerns in one system.

“It was becoming overwhelming to continue at a rapid pace while striving to meet growing demand. We needed to be more responsive to students.”

CARE reports have rapidly increased on campus over the last decade, reaching a high of 1,986 from July 1, 2018, to June 30, 2019, marking a 26-percent increase in submitted reports over the previous fiscal year. In fiscal year 2021 — even during a period of modified operations due to a global pandemic — 1,956 cases were opened. With students fully back in-person since August 2021, the numbers have only multiplied, jumping more than 30 percent so far over the previous fiscal year. And there’s no sign that growth will slow down soon.

Evolution of CARE Services

With a comprehensive record-keeping system in hand, staff under the Dean of Students umbrella were able to keep up with the growing demand for CARE services that paralleled Clemson’s spike in enrollment.

“At the same time, the office began to manage an after-hours hospital response protocol known as Dean on Call,” says Kathy Cauthen, assistant director of the Office of Advocacy and Success. “CARE concerns were growing substantially on Clemson’s campus; we were experiencing a double-digit percentage increase in student volume year after year.”

Rusty Guill ’80, M ’88 was on staff for more than 30 years at his alma mater and was one of the individuals responsible for managing the high volume of CARE reports submitted through the online network during its beginnings.

“The range of concerns definitely grew because we began seeing much more depression and anxiety,” he says. “The system was user friendly, and we were able to keep very detailed records of what happened with every student we met with. The CARE Network became a catch-all for a lot of different situations.”

Poole — who spent nearly a decade as a licensed professional counselor at Redfern Health Center — was promoted to an associate dean of students position overseeing a new office in 2015 as CARE services began to be extracted from under the Dean of Students Office.

“When you work directly with students, as I did in CAPS, they come in with a need or concern or are hurting,” Poole says. “Being a clinician in the past helped with the understanding of student behavior and interactions and impact of life experiences.
The ability to build a rapport with students pretty readily so I can refer them to the appropriate resources — it helped with that as well.”

A Network of Support

Brian Van Brunt authored an extensive piece on how campuses explore various models for responding to student concerns in 2019 for Connections magazine, a publication of the Association of College and University Housing Officers — International. He says it is imperative for case managers to help students engage in effective problem-solving by identifying appropriate solutions.

“Case management is a solutions-focused approach to assisting students with a wide variety of needs,” he says. “As such, case managers are concerned about what is and what can be done, rather than a focus on what was and what has held back the student in the past.”

Once a report is submitted electronically, a staff member does an initial review and assigns a level of CARE to a trained staff member within Advocacy and Success, or partners located in specific areas such as Fraternity and Sorority Life and Residential Living. Staff can immediately view a connected online history to previous CARE or conduct issues.

“These tracking systems are one of the tools we utilize — along with expert departmental advice — to help inform a potential risk,” Cauthen says. “The CARE file manager will read everything thoroughly and determine the next steps.”

CARE staff operate under the guidance of a file manager manual. Often, next steps include personally reaching out to the student and engaging them directly on the concern.

“From that contact, we have a template for how we meet with students,” Cauthen adds. “If it does not warrant an immediate safety concern, we work with them on the best way to get connected to specific resources. We try very hard to empower students to make those connections themselves because we believe it’s a critical part of growth.”

An electronic CARE report provides staff a complete picture of the concern. Within the software, a student’s demographic information is populated, including ethnicity, gender, academic classification and major, status as an athlete, student veteran, and fraternity or sorority affiliation. Trained staff are also able to access a student’s related history, incident description, primary and secondary concerns, contact information, supporting documentation, and level of care determined.

“We work hard to educate faculty, staff and students on our role because there can be some confusion,” says Poole, who has taken on more direct engagement with students and families as her role has expanded under Vice President for Student Affairs and Dean of Students Chris Miller. “We are the entry point and conduit to addressing a student’s needs.”

One of the most common places of referral for students is CAPS. Birma Gainor ’95, M ’01, M ’03 currently serves as director but has ties to the department dating back more than 20 years.

Working off referrals through the network from individuals or campus partners, CAPS becomes involved at a student’s request or in cases of immediate harm.

“Having been here before we had anything like [the CARE Network], I can honestly say it’s so much better and improves safety on campus,” Gainor says. “We have multiple avenues for student contact and safety, and it’s been a big help to CAPS.”

Cauthen added that although the work can often be labor-intensive, the stories of students and families who have been positively impacted through the CARE Network resonate with staff and are the ultimate rewards.

“The Clemson Family understands this is a shared responsibility,” she says. “Our goal is to support student success and build resilience. CARE is fostered through conversations with faculty and staff. They’re really concerned for each other and for our students. We have an incredible village of CARE. It’s always been that way at Clemson.”

Philip Sikes ’02, M ’04 is the communications director of student affairs.

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