It’s that classic college story. A boy leaves his phone in his dorm and goes to do laundry. His mom calls boy once, twice, three times in 10 minutes. The boy does not pick up his phone. Mom panics and calls the police.
Lt. Anthony Rispoli of the University Police Department estimates that there are four welfare checks each week.
Rispoli has been an officer in UPD for 12 years, and in that time he has seen the student population shoot from 600 to more than 14,000, and the number of welfare checks has grown with the population.
“The vast majority of welfare checks are ‘calls for contact,’ where there’s not an actual emergency,” Rispoli said. “A lot of them are parents and there’s an issue where a student just hasn’t picked up the phone and it turns out ‘yeah, I was in the library working on a project’ or ‘I was out with friends.’”
However, there are welfare checks called in for a legitimate concern or medical emergency. UPD follows the same procedure with each welfare call that comes in, so officers can “make sure nothing falls through the cracks.”
“When a caller calls in, we get their name, a call-back number, their relationship to the person they are calling for and the reason for their concern. Then we go and search for the individual.”
An officer will call housing if the student is a resident and meet up with a housing employee at the resident’s dorm to try to make direct contact. If a first attempt to make contact is unsuccessful, the officer can pull up a student’s schedule and try to meet them at a class, check to see if the student’s vehicle is on campus and even check public areas such as the fitness center.
Because of restrictions from the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, officers are not able to call back the person who called in the welfare check.
“When we locate the individual, we can advise them to call their mom, but we can’t call the person back. We can never be sure of who is calling and what their motives are,” Rispoli said. “We’ve had issues with parents trying to track down kids because of a strained relationship.”
While Rispoli said the majority of welfare checks are not emergencies, emergencies do happen.
According to an Oct. 14 University Police report, a welfare check was requested by an anonymous caller who reported that a resident was sending text messages stating that he was going to commit suicide. UPD was able to contact the on-call Counseling and Psychological Services counselor and set up a next-day appointment for the at-risk individual. Several people advised that they would stay with the individual overnight at Gulf Coast Medical Center and take him to his CAPS appointment the next morning.
Jon Brunner, director of Counseling and Health Services, said that parents contact CAPS infrequently. CAPS is usually called not as a call for contact but as a check on a student’s psychological well-being.
“From our perspective it’s usually a call about ‘I think my student is depressed,’ or ‘I don’t think my student is able to cope,’” Bruner said. “CAPS needs to be perceived as being neutral, so we will basically recommend the parent reaches out to the appropriate person.”
Most of the time, CAPS will refer a caller to Lauren Strunk, the case manager in the Dean of Students Office.
“If we thought a student was an imminent danger to themselves or someone else then we would proceed and call UPD,” Brunner said.
Brian Fisher has been the director of housing for eight years, and he says that while welfare checks that are called into housing are pretty uncommon, they are always resolved.
“We have room for 4,748 students to live in housing. In eight years of working here, we’ve never had a welfare check where we couldn’t locate the student,” Fisher said. “We’ve never had a student actually go missing.”
Rispoli says that parents usually call “a little bit more for freshmen, but it does happen across the board for students.”
Brunner’s advice for first-time college students to avoid a welfare check is to set up regular contact with their parents or guardians. “A text message here and there can help.”
So the next time you look down at your phone and see 10 missed calls from home, consider calling back. If you don’t, the next call you receive could be from UPD.