We are FAR from experts on legal issues.
All universities and colleges have their own team of legal experts that provide them with legal protocols and guidance. In addition, residential living and housing programs have their own policies and procedures. It is important that you understand those policies, protocols, and procedures.
The information presented in this article was accumulated from discussions with housing professionals, and it provides a summary of the issues that are viewed as being important to the RA job.
Confidentiality & FERPA
You will probably come to know information about some of your residents that is confidential and may not be shared with others. Some of this information (for example, a judicial case) is protected under the Federal Educational Rights to Privacy Act, often referred to as FERPA, or The Buckley Amendment. It is against the law for this information to be shared in almost any case.
Of course, there are times that you will come to know information that is important for your Resident Director to know, or that you are legally required to share with your supervisor (i.e., a rape). If a student is telling you something important, please be sure to tell them that you may have to share the information with your RD.
Confiscation of Alcohol & Drugs
Policies for confiscation of alcohol and drugs differ by institution. Some campuses allow RAs to confiscate these properties, while others rely on their campus police or safety officers to do so. In other cases, RAs may require the students themselves to dump alcohol or turn in drugs. Be sure to ask your supervisors during training about how this is to be done at your institution.
Counseling & Referral (Suicidal Students)
The easiest thing to remember here is this: You are not a trained, certified, or licensed counselor. If a student talks about suicide or you notice things that make you believe the student is in need of some help, talk to the student and offer to help them get assistance. Tell them, for example, that you need to share this information with your RD, but that you’d like to go with them to your counseling center. Don’t give them advice about how to care for themselves – be there for them, but get them to the places where they can get help.
If a student is making a suicidal gesture, don’t hesitate for a minute. Call for assistance immediately. You cannot decide if they are serious about suicide or not. Let others do that.
Driving Residents to Programs
Many times, you’ll want to do a program that is off campus. Perhaps you want to go bowling, or do a community service project in the schools nearby. Be sure before you make plans to do this that you find out what your institution’s policies are for off-campus activities. Generally, driving your own cars and taking students with you is discouraged. However, there may be university vehicles available for this kind of programming, and usually there are forms for participants to fill out.
Emergency Medical Needs
First Aid and CPR always seem to have a shadow of fear surrounding them. Some universities provide training and certification in these areas for their staffs. Other institutions choose not to provide it, citing liability as the reason. Ask your supervisor what your institution’s policies are. If you are certified in First Aid or CPR, you should feel free to use it while someone is calling for emergency assistance. At this time, almost all states have a “Good Samaritan Law” which protects you should something occur while you are performing life-saving activities.
Although much has been said and done about hazing over the last 15 years, it still exists. You may be confronted by hazing incidents among some Greek Letter organizations, athletic teams, or other organizations. If you suspect that hazing is occurring, it is imperative that you bring this to the attention of your supervisor or “on-call” staff immediately.
Harassment & Threats
If you or someone on your section is being harassed, threatened, or stalked, you must report this immediately. If you have a campus police department, make a report to them in addition to your RD. Take all threats seriously.
You’ve probably figured out by now that you probably shouldn’t transport people to the hospital. Although you may think an injury or illness isn’t life-threatening, there is every possibility that it is or could rapidly become so. Emergencies are best handled by those trained to handle them. Call your campus police, 911, an ambulance – whichever your university instructs you to do in emergencies – and let them do their jobs.
Not Reporting Life Safety Issues
What if you are visiting a student and notice some fire code violations in her room – say two or three burnt candles or a taped smoke detector? You were just there to talk, after all.
You must address the situation and document it. Remember, the purpose of confronting these situations in preventing harm to our students, don’t look away… you may be saving someone’s life in the process.
Searching Student Rooms
Each university has specific policies which address the searching of student rooms. Be aware of what your university’s policies are, what your responsibilities are (health & safety inspections, break closing checks, etc.) and that you don’t exceed the boundaries of your responsibilities. If in doubt, tell your supervisor and let him or her make the decision of what to do.
RAs’ and RDs’ jobs require them to be available in the building much of the time. Few people really believe you are to be available 24-7 (though you may find some who say they DO expect that!). However, if you are not reasonably available, or if you are not keeping with your contracted availability, you may be putting your job and the university at risk. Be sure you understand what is required of you and adhere to it.
There are certainly other issues out there, and the issues covered in this article could vary from institution to institution, and from housing program to housing program. Take some time as you are learning about your job to ask your RD or other Residence Life personnel what, specifically, they and the university expect from you as an RA. If you are clear about these things up front, your job will be easier down the line.