Higher Education Ph.D. Dissertations


The Experience of Senior Student Affairs Administrators Making Parental Notification Decisions About Disturbed and Disturbed/Disturbing Students

Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


Higher Education Administration

First Advisor

Maureen Wilson

Second Advisor

Courtney Holmes (Committee Member)

Third Advisor

Michael Coomes (Committee Member)

Fourth Advisor

Patrick Pauken (Committee Member)


The purpose of this phenomenological study was to examine how senior student affairs administrators experience disturbed and disturbed/disturbing students on their campuses and make the decision to involve parents in their care. Greater numbers of college students are coming to campus with mental health issues of increasing severity (Mowbray et al., 2006). Parental involvement is believed to be an appropriate response to critical incidents of this nature because of the relationship that exists between millennial students and their parents (Dickstein & Christensen, 2008). While FERPA allows for such contact, little is known about how it is employed during crises of this kind.

Participants in this study were senior student affairs administrators from small private liberal arts colleges and universities. Seven participants with at least three years of experience in senior level roles with crisis management responsibilities were interviewed. The first semi-structured interview was conducted either in-person or over Skype. A second interview was facilitated over the phone. All seven participants came from different institutions and represented a variety of backgrounds in terms of professional experience and education.

Three broad categories of themes emerged from this study: beliefs about involvement, experiencing the disturbed and disturbed/disturbing student, and the decision for contact. All participants expressed a commitment to student autonomy, but acknowledged that safety ultimately trumps student privacy. Participants described their experience of disturbed and disturbed/disturbing students as involving confidence and concern, working with parents and student peers, and being affected by institutional culture. Finally, participants described the decision for contact as determined by certain factors including the imminence of risk, the student's inability to function, consultation with colleagues, hospitalization, and the exhaustion of institutional resources. Conversely, destructive familial relationships and timing were identified as reasons participants might reconsider contact. A number of implications were presented based on these findings. First, campus administrators can help educate parents about appropriate involvement with their student and about college student mental health. Second, administrators should also develop crisis management training for professionals at all levels of the institution. Third, utilizing a community-based approach to crisis management will likely lead to the most effective responses to it. Finally, administrators should remain cognizant that campus mental health professionals may be over-burdened and take steps to alleviate their loads.