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Death in the Family

Death in the Family

I write today about a problem I hadn’t pondered before, not common, but potentially quite important to those involved when it does surface:

A student recently raised an interesting issue. Last semester he suffered a death in his family and missed a test in one class. The professor involved insisted on seeing a death certificate before granting an excused absence. The student managed to appeal to the HIPPA privacy laws and persuade the instructor to change his mind but felt demeaned in the process — in what was clearly a difficult personal time.  So the student asked me to suggest a policy in a very balanced and cogent statement.

The issues are obvious. We all know that some students, if only a few, do invent deaths.  I have some colleagues who assert records for the numbers of grandparents whose passings individual students have claimed in a semester. At the same time, we surely want a policy that allows for absences in cases of death or other family emergencies without demeaning documentation requirements. (I should note that a student on my advisory board already suggested that asking for a copy of the relevant obituary would be vastly preferable to the death certificate route, but even this might seem offensive.)

I must say, personally, despite knowing that some cheating occurs, I would always give a student the benefit of doubt, simply because the chances of offending in a real personal tragedy are too great, and the costs of rearrangements are usually not considerable. But I do understand that some colleagues, who are more concerned about enforcing integrity, take a different view.

So thanks to an imaginative colleague in the senior staff, we have come up with a response. If a student is uncomfortable seeking an excused absence from an instructor in a family emergency situation, OR if an instructor has requested documentation that the student finds demeaning, we suggest a visit to the Dean of Student Academic Affairs as recourse. The Dean would use a brief discussion with the student as the basis for talking with the instructor about granting the absence without requiring special documentation — but with some broader awareness of the student’s overall record. This way no student would face the intrusion of a potentially offensive documentation request from an instructor, yet some protection against abuse is provided as well.

Worth giving the policy a try? Seems so to me, if we can appropriately get the word out to students and faculty alike.