Chris Smith, director of the Cox Health and Counseling Center, showed up to Monday evening’s Student Council meeting still wearing a complimentary blue bracelet from last week’s “Send Silence Packing” exhibit.
At the meeting, he fielded questions from student representatives and spoke with the Peer Counselors (PCs) for the first time since the backpacks appeared on Peirce Lawn. It was the second public panel on “Send Silence Packing,” following last Thursday’s community forum sponsored by Vice President for Student Affairs Meredith Harper Bonham ’92.
Bonham revealed the formation of a Task Force on Emotional Health and Well-being at the end of the forum, which she is co-chairing with Professor of Music Dane Heuchemer. Plans for the task force were in the works before “Send Silence Packing” arrived on campus. The task force also includes Smith, four student representatives, two staff members, two faculty members and a College trustee. Over the course of the year, they intend to “take a look at what’s happening, what resources we currently offer at Kenyon and what additional resources we need to bring to campus,” Bonham said.
The announcement was met with mixed reactions from the audience. “While ultimately there is some form of bureaucratic progress towards listening to students essentially being made, a major source of frustration from the students is that it is very focused on people who have already sort of been socially approved by the College,” Ronan Weber ’20 said at the forum. “It is too little, too late because a lot of students have been saying this kind of thing for years and have only just started feeling like maybe they’re going to be heard.”
The forum was marked by tension between staff members, particularly Bonham and Smith, and students. Those in attendance were invited to speak their minds on the exhibit and, more broadly, the College’s counseling services. They asked questions, cited statistics and shared personal stories.
“I just couldn’t go to class and I couldn’t eat yesterday without being beaten over the head by statistics that don’t make me feel better, that don’t make me feel seen, that make me feel in a pool of faceless people, of backpacks meant to look like a graveyard,” Blue Semmelhack ’22 said.
Many students voiced frustration at both a lack of mental health resources and the quality of existing resources, including counseling staff, ProtoCall, Campus Safety and the Title IX office.
“I really, really want to believe that you guys have our best interests at heart,” said Sabrina Halavi ’20. “But after I know you all have been aware of this issue for months on end, maybe even a year, maybe longer, it just feels impossible that things are still the way that they are and resources still don’t exist … I understand that it’s hard to bring counselors here. But in that case, resources need to be reallocated so that we have the funds in order to attract counselors to come here. And I don’t understand what could be more important than the safety of our students.”
Multiple students also asked Bonham to apologize for “Send Silence Packing,” which she did via email the next day.
“I took to heart that the exhibition, which seeks to raise awareness of mental health concerns on college campuses, was not what many on this college campus needed to feel seen, heard or safe. Our community suffered a loss last spring, and the exhibition added to the grief and vulnerability that some in our community are feeling,” she wrote. “[F]or that I am sorry.”
Another topic that came up at the forum was funding, both for the $7,500 exhibition and for the Counseling Center’s services. “We’re told that we have to raise our $70,000 tuition in order [to get more counselors]. But I think instead, we need to reach out to our really rich donors and stop accepting lavish gifts, like a statue for a library that doesn’t even exist,” said Semmelhack.
Smith addressed funding concerns during Monday’s Student Council meeting. “Send Silence Packing,” he said, was paid for out of an endowed fund for health promotion.
Later in the meeting, three PCs read a statement explaining and apologizing for the organization’s role in the exhibit, which they said was “antithetical to [their] core mission.”
According to the statement, the PCs received an email from Smith about the event in late August, but were unable to speak with him in person about their concerns until mid-September. In his original email, Smith wrote that the exhibit’s venue was subject to change with the PCs’ input. The PCs spoke with Mike Durham a week later about the location, and one PC made flyers to inform the community about “Send Silence Packing.” Those flyers were emailed to Smith for printing but never distributed.
After reading the statement, George Goldman ’20 added that the PCs did not intend to “disparage, or attribute malintent” to any administrator.
“There’s been many conversations internally with the Peer Counselors that go like this. We signed up to become Peer Counselors because we cared about supporting students, but ironically, in our role in the past two years, we have felt more constrained than [we would have] if we were not Peer Counselors,” Goldman said.
In response to the PCs’ statement, Smith said, “There’s some things that are true in there, and I think there are some things that were very much not true.” Smith said he had spoken with Associate Director for Substance Abuse and Case Management Mike Durham, who supervises PCs, earlier that day, and claimed that the PCs never conveyed any concerns about “Send Silence Packing” to him. PC Shara Morgan ’20 said that she had personally expressed her concerns to Durham.
Smith also addressed the PCs’ frustration with the imposed restrictions on their organization, a result of their recent incorporation into the Counseling Center. “The reason that many of these constraints have been put on you all is because you were acting as counselors,” Smith said. “None of you all have training for that, and some of the things that were being done were very unsafe for your peers … There’s a history of some things being mismanaged.”
PC Ella Musher-Eizenman ’22 asked Smith directly what he thought of the PCs’ intent to hold small group sessions.
“The reason we haven’t done listening sessions … is because every time [that] we come back and say ‘What’s your plan?’ we’ve never received a plan,” Smith said.
Morgan responded that nobody had ever asked the PCs for a plan.
“Oh, we’ve asked a lot, Shara,” said Smith. “We’ll try anything with a plan.”
Musher-Eizenman then promised to bring him a plan for listening sessions.
“Then let’s see a plan,” Smith said. “Because I’ve never seen one.”
Though they share the goal of providing support to the Kenyon community, tensions between staff and students linger in the fallout of “Send Silence Packing.”
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Does any other college have as high of per student “health fee” as Kenyon? At about $2000 annually it is multiples higher than similar fees at similar schools. It’s hard to understand how there cannot be adequate funding for counseling resources given this.
Reply to Jennifer Griffith
The condescending words and phrases Chris Smith uses when addressing the PCs concerns and upsets me. As an alum who has a lot of love for this school, I expect much better of staff.
Reply to Hayley Yussman
as a founding member of the PCs, i'm always dismayed to read Kenyon news. at our prime, we served over 1/4 of the student body and put in hundreds of hours of peer-to-peer care, unpaid for and often cited as even more helpful than the counseling center. other than admin, nobody was confused because we weren't confusing: we were just fellow students who volunteered to listen, be companions in moments of crisis, and connect people feeling lost to each other and to professionals on campus. the misinformation and demonization of the organization is a tactic used by admin to control what they see as a huge liability problem. i see informal volunteer networks like the PCs at a huge variety of institutions around the country and globe, in schools and workplaces and cities and retirement homes. it is cowardice to put percieved risk over proven results. the counseling services at Kenyon college are crucial and also, alone, haven't fully served student needs for a long, long time. the PCs spent years effectively addressing key gaps in mental health services. we formed in response to a student suicide in the fall of my freshman year and a huge rash of mental health crises that first academic year. tragic that we weren't given a chance to integrate comfortably into the fabric of that college and help create a different student experience.
Reply to ocean jurney