Virginia Tech Campus

College Life: Challenging, Daunting, and Now, Dangerous

Virginia Tech Campus

During orientation on many college campuses, parents are handed one of several books to read. The goal is to help parents “let go” of their college-aged child. This is the time to back off, parents are told. Let the child fend for himself.

You can’t blame the colleges. “Helicopter parents” are everywhere these days, hovering over their children from kindergarten through high school. Old habits die hard and so many parents are reluctant to let go when their son or daughter leaves for college.

But while the colleges are urging parents to step back, who is stepping up to take their place? Even before the tragedy at Virginia Tech, my co-author, Margaret Sagarese, and I have been concerned about the lack of a safety net at most of our colleges, where the concept of “in loco parentis,” is a thing of the past. Colleges and universities used to have a structure in place where troubled students were spotted and helped. These days too many kids with serious problems fall between the cracks.

Cho Seung-hui, who went on a murderous rampage at Virginia Tech before he killed himself, is the most obvious example of how the system failed. But there are many other disasters that have occurred on our college campuses that might have been avoided if more stringent rules and regulations were in place.

I think back to my days in college. I lived in a sorority house and we had a curfew, 11 p.m. on weekdays, 2 a.m. on weekends. We had a house mother, an elderly woman from the South, who made it her business to be visible and available at curfew time. I remember how much fun it was to gather in the kitchen after a night out and share stories. What I wasn’t so aware of was the safety net this curfew provided. An alarm went out if anyone didn’t show up. Where was she? Who was she with? No one wanted to arrive home drunk or stoned and face Mrs. Kemp. So, even though this was the swinging 60s, there were fewer girls who came home in bad condition. When someone did, there was always someone to help.

All of this, I know, seems very out of date and quaint. (I know it does to my kids, my son, a few years out of college, and my daughter just finishing her junior year). But as a parent, there are nights when I look at the clock and wonder if my daughter is safe. I refrain from calling her cell. I trust her, but I know I wouldn’t trust her any less if she had a Mrs. Kemp down the hall.

I shudder when I hear parents say that their child has good friends who play the role of protector. No young person should be handed that burden. And, in many cases, that system doesn’t work. Look at how many students were concerned about Cho and were helpless.

Several years ago, my brother’s best friend from high school received a call that his son—his only son—was missing. After a night of heavy drinking, his friends brought him back to the dorm and left him on a sofa in the lounge. He must have wandered out again and fell into a ravine. They searched for him for more than a week before finding his body.

Of course, parents have pushed for greater freedom for their college-aged kids. Very few undergraduates had cars when I was in college. Now most colleges have trouble finding room for all the SUVs students bring to school. One administrator told me it was parents who wanted those cars on campus to make it more convenient for their children to get around and drive to and from school.

More students now live off campus in apartments and houses. Some colleges have space problems and don’t guarantee students housing for all four years. In other cases, however, students choose to live off campus, thus removing themselves even further from the watchful eye of college officials.

Privacy rules, which hampered the Virginia Tech administrators, also were lobbied for by parents who wanted to protect their children’s rights. Yet those rules now bar colleges from telling parents anything. A parent cannot even receive a child’s grades, even though mom and dad foot the bill.

Will the pendulum swing back? I know we won’t go back to curfews, single-sex bathrooms, no cars, and mandatory housing on campus. But, hopefully, more colleges will begin to put in place needed safeguards for students. Until that time, who can criticize a parent who decides to hover?

Charlene C. Giannetti is the co-author with Margaret Sagarese of six parenting books.

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