This story originally published online at N.C. Policy Watch. 

Student leaders at UNC-Chapel Hill are asking that money from a recently increased security fee go toward student priorities, including additional campus mental health services and gender violence service coordinators, as well as an improvement in safe nighttime campus transit.

Early this year, the UNC Board of Governors announced it would hold in-state tuition flat again this year at UNC System schools, but that student fees would be going up. Perhaps most controversially, the board approved a doubling of campus security fees paid by students from $30 to $60, except on those campuses at which that would violate a standing 3 percent cap on fee increases.

Student leaders across the system opposed the increase, particularly as a large portion of the money was slated to go toward hiring and increasing the salaries of campus police officers. Students at various campuses have clashed with police in the last few years. They say they have been frustrated in their attempts to get police to meaningfully address distrust between students and police, particularly about racial and political issues.

Last month, the elected leaders of UNC-Chapel Hill’s undergraduate and graduate students helped write an extensive proposal for directing the extra $725,000 the increased fee will generate toward student priorities.

“When student fees are being used, students should always be part of the process of deciding how those fees will be used,” said Neel Swamy, president of the campus Graduate and Professional Student Federation.  “And the question always needs to be, ‘are student fees being used in a way that empowers the campus community?’”

Lamar Richards, UNC-Chapel Hill Student Body president, said he and other student leaders have consistently opposed student fee increases, but have been unable to stop the them.

“I’m not a big fan of increasing fees,” Richards said. “We want to maintain our affordability, especially at Carolina. If we had to have an increase, we need to figure out what the student needs really are and how to address those.”

Having the undergraduate and graduate/professional students present a detailed proposal and a united front is important, Swamy said, as they work with school administrators and university interests who will ultimately decide.

Making mental health a priority

Student leaders agree that improved mental health service is one of the school’s most urgent needs.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, studies showed the existing systems were inadequate for student needs.

According to university data, between the 2012-13 and 2016-17 academic years the number of annual “triage” visits at the school’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) jumped by 104 percent. The number of “urgent crisis” visits increased 101 percent.

Most students spent the last semester learning remotely, where many had limited or no access to campus health services. But during the 2019-2020 academic year, university data show 65% of undergraduate, graduate and professional students at Chapel Hill used CAPS or Campus Health at least once. CAPS recorded 17,000 visits throughout that year.

A UNC System report released this year found eight of every 10 students reported the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health. One in 10 students seriously considered taking their life during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to the report.

Mental health services on campus are woefully understaffed in the face of these increases, students wrote in their proposal.

As of April 2021, the permanent staff-to-student ratio at CAPS was 1: 2,248 students, falling significantly short of the 1: 1,000 ratio recommended by the International Association of Counseling Services (IACS),” they wrote. “In addition, although Campus Health also provides mental health assessments and referrals, the reach of these services is limited because these services are often administered by graduate student interns who only work two to three days a week and exclusively during the Fall and Spring semesters.”

The wave of racial violence in the nation has exposed further inadequacies in the system, the student leaders wrote.

“Following the murder of Asian American women in Atlanta on March 16, 2021, a coalition of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI)-identifying students and allies petitioned to expand AAPI-specific resources offered through CAPS,” they wrote.

The CAPS office doesn’t have any Asian American-identifying counselors, the students wrote, despite Asian American students making up the largest ethnic minority demographic on campus.

The student leaders continued:

“While CAPS does host a Multicultural Health Program—which provides brief therapy, group therapy, and outreach events to BIPOC students at UNC-Chapel Hill—the program only has four mental health clinicians, and has not acquired enough financial investment since its inception to effectively serve UNC-Chapel Hill’s 9,000+ BIPOC-identifying undergraduate, graduate, and professional students.”

That’s reflected in CAPS data showing minority students use the service far less often, student leaders wrote. According to university data from last year, 65 percent of CAPS patients identified as white, 12 percent Asian, 12 percent Black/African American, and 3 percent Latino.

The student proposal recommends hiring one psychologist for the Multicultural Health Program at a cost of $93,371 and two social workers for on-site mental health care at Campus Health at a cost of $161,355. Those costs include salaries, benefits, continuing education and clinical licensure expenditures.

“From the numbers, it’s easy to tell this is a major priority for campus safety, if not the biggest priority,” Swamy said.

Tackling sexual and gender violence

Recent surveys also suggest Chapel Hill isn’t doing enough to prevent a rising level of sexual assault or serve student victims.

The campus was one of 33 included in the 2019 Association of American Universities’ Campus Climate Survey on Sexual Assault and Misconduct. More than 20 percent of respondents at the university reported “nonconsensual sexual touching or penetration” since they came to the school. In most instances, those who experienced such assaults said they knew the perpetrators and they were other students.

Among graduate/professional students, an alarming number said they had experienced harassing behavior from a faculty member or instructor—about 22 percent among graduate/professional women and about 17 percent among graduate/professional men.

Following that survey, the school convened a Gender-Based Violence Advisory Group in June of 2020. The group’s Fall 2020 report offers a range of suggested steps to address the problem, but student leaders say that effort is going to take funding that isn’t yet in place.

“UNC-Chapel Hill’s staffing capacity for gender-based violence prevention lags far behind that of self-defined peer institutions, such as UC-Berkeley, the University of Maryland-College Park, the University of Virginia, and the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor,” student leaders wrote in their proposal. “Of the 16 peer universities reviewed in the 2020 report, 12 have formal offices or centers dedicated to gender-based violence and 13 have a lower gender-based violence prevention and advocacy staff to student ratio than UNC – Chapel Hill (1: 8536).”

Right now, the Chapel Hill campus has just one full-time violence prevention coordinator, one part-time prevention program assistant and two full-time gender violence service coordinators.

The student proposal for use of increased fees suggests $60,000 as an initial budget for the school’s recently hired Senior Prevention Strategy Officer. That’s two dollars per student at the school, according to the latest enrollment.

The proposal also suggests hiring two more gender violence service coordinators at a cost of $140,000 and the creation of a university-wide Sexual Assault Awareness Month calendar at a cost of $5,000.

Getting students home safely

The student proposal also calls for increased funding for an an overhaul of the campus SafeWalk system, a student-led initiative that provides free escorts to students who have to walk home after dark either on or off campus.

The system is one way of addressing poor after-dark transportation options for students but, according to data provided by student leaders, it isn’t meeting demand.

“In Fall 2019, while operating merely five nights per week with a single pair of student employees, SafeWalk provided an impressive 7.9 walks per night and was on track to serve over 1300 students for the academic year,” the proposal said. “Nevertheless, these data fail to indicate the actual demand for student-led alternatives to those services currently offered by UNC-Chapel Hill. In October 2019, for instance, SafeWalk recorded nearly 25 instances in a period of five nights in which a student was denied a transportation service because no employees were available to escort them.”

Students are proposing a new program which would absorb the current SafeWalk program and offer a student-led alternative to the on-demand SafeRide program, which provides increased transportation options during late night hours of Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays when school is in session.

The proposal calls for $134,640 to hire two teams of walkers, dispatchers, directors and drivers. It also calls for $43,673 for vehicles and vehicle maintenance. An additional $6,950 would be needed for programming, $2,766 for hardware and uniforms as well as $2,000 for marketing.

“Our goals are in alignment”

So far, talks with administrators over how the new student fee money will be spent have gone well, Swamy said. School leadership hasn’t committed to anything yet, but they’ve made it clear that they embrace the goals expressed in the student proposal.

“I think what we’ve taken away is that our goals are in alignment,” Swamy said. “As students, we’re happy to see any existing source of funding applied or shifted around to fund these things.”

If they’re successful in getting their goals funded, Swamy said, student leaders hope their proposal will serve as an example to other campuses.

“One of the things we’ve done well here is work together as undergraduate and graduate/professional students toward goals we all share,” Swamy said. “I think if you can do that on any campus, you have a greater opportunity for your voices to be heard.”

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