New policy helps students, professors with bereavement leave

By Kim Buckley, NewsNetNebraska

When Mike Wehling’s mom died two years ago, the senior political science major at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln was worried to speak to his professors about the issue.

He felt the emotional stress from his mother dying. He also worried about missing class to go the funeral.

“I was praying that (my teachers) would be understanding (of the situation),” he said.

Wehling said while he is grateful his professors understood the situation, there wasn’t a set bereavement policy. At first, some of his teachers were uncertain how to handle the situation. They told him to take as much time as he needed, Wehling said. They would work things out later.

The university is a step closer to enacting a bereavement policy to help students like Wehling, who lose a loved one during college. The UNL Faculty Senate approved supporting a bereavement policy at its meeting Feb. 7. The policy only asks professors to communicate with the student in times of bereavement. The motion will be sent to the Academic Affairs office to receive administrative approval.

Wehling isn’t the only college student to lose a family member. At least a third of college students have lost a family member or close friend in the past two years, according to National Students of AMF Support Network, a nonprofit organization that supports college students in their grief.

Wehling has seen other classmates encounter the same situation — some without the same understanding from instructors. Two years later as a senator and the Governmental Liaison Committee chair for the Association of Students of the University of Nebraska, he would have a chance to help other students who lost a family member while in college.

In December, ASUN passed a senate resolution to support a student bereavement policy for the university. The policy would make it a university-wide policy for faculty members to accommodate students in time of grief.

ASUN president Eric Kamler said everyone goes through a difficult time in life when they lose a family member. Students should have standards implemented in the workforce, said Kamler, a senior agricultural economics major.

“In the real world, when you lose a parent, you get a day or two off and time to go to the funeral,” he said.

Both Kamler and Wehling supported the ASUN Academic Committee chair, Reanna Nicholson, when she brought the bill to the senate floor.

Nicholson, a senior accounting major, said that the policy is “something that’s been on ASUN’s plate for a few years.”

During the past couple of years, both the N Vision Party and the ACTION Party ASUN administrations tried to implement a student bereavement policy.

Last year, former ASUN president Lane Carr submitted a proposal for a standalone student bereavement policy. The Faculty Senate tabled the proposal. Faculty members felt that bereavement should be added to the attendance policy instead of being a separate policy, according to the meeting minutes for January, where the senate discussed the policy motion.

This year, ASUN rewrote the section added to the policy. They resubmitted the revised proposal.

Woodman said the bereavement policy doesn’t take away from the existing class attendance policy. For example, if the attendance policy states students are only granted six absences and a student requests permission to miss a seventh class for bereavement, the professor can deny the request, he said.

“The student still has to understand that the professor’s attendance policy is not in the sense overwritten by the bereavement policy,” Woodman said.

For students to truly take advantage of the policy, they need to submit paperwork to the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, Nicholson said. The office will then notify the student’s instructors of the situation. The student will then be responsible for contacting professors to discuss accommodations.

Wehling said with a written student bereavement policy, students have one less thing to worry about when they lose a family member.

“When you go through something traumatic like losing a family member, it’s nice to know I don’t have to go to class during the funeral,” he said. “That I can make up the work.”

Losing a family member is just one of the difficult circumstances a student can face, said Wes Peterson, an agricultural economics professor at UNL and a member of Faculty Senate.

“I think faculty members are going to be quite willing to work with students with legitimate reasons for missing class,” Peterson said.

These reasons include sickness, attending an event for a student club or organization or playing in an athletic event. Peterson said he sees students miss class more often for those reasons more than bereavement.

Loukia Sarroub, an associate professor of education at UNL and a Faculty Senate member, agreed that professors have to be flexible for students during their times of grief. However, she pointed out that the bereavement policy wasn’t perfect.

She said she had a problem with the policy when it was originally presented to the senate because it required faculty to check up on students, adding that it put instructors in a policing role.

“As adults, I’d rather take them at their word,” Sarroub said.

As it stands, Sarroub said she thinks the policy is redundant and not as productive as it could have been.

Peterson said he didn’t expect students to misuse the policy.

“I’m pretty confident students are straight on this and not inventing dead grandmothers,” he said.

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