In November 2021, Karla Fonner left her position with Student Support and took up the position of Dean of Students for Slippery Rock University (SRU). This position has not been occupied in nearly twenty years.
As Dean of Students, Fonner’s every day looks different. Her top priority is to ensure that students are connected to resources across campus for when things happen outside of the classroom. She is in charge of care reports as well as when things regarding student conduct take place.
Previously being in Student Support, she was regularly dealing with student conflict at various stages. This could be roommate situations and living arrangements, lack of financial resources, lack of food, clothing or housing and all various basic needs.
Among these conflicts, Fonner also handled safety issues such as someone who has been violated, assaulted or abused. With COVID-19, student conduct has also been dealing with family conflicts, such as possible illness or death of family members.
The goal of Student Support is to offer resources to students and let them know they are cared for.
“We want to figure out how we can support you through whatever it is that you’re going through,” Fonner said. “We meet with the students, and we talk through what their options are, what choices they have and where we want to explore all the possible ways around a situation.”
In order to effectively support students, there are various members apart of these teams to conduct effective communication. Every morning, Fonner’s “internal team” meets together to discuss their daily goals and what needs to be completed.
Once a week a staff meeting occurs where the team will look at the overall department to make sure things are operating effectively. This includes looking at programs going on, revisiting their mission statement and keeping the path open for departmental communication.
One of the biggest tools in clear communication among staff members is a software system that allows case managers to see one another’s active cases. This is to be sure that students are receiving active information with whoever they may talk too.
Fonner also has a Care Coordination Team in place, which she deems as essential to running operations as the Dean of Students. This team is compromised of a representative from the Student Counseling Center (SCC), Student Health Services, Office of Disability Services, Student Support and Residence Life. Their weekly meetings last about two hours and they discuss cases that require cross-communication across departments.
The final team is the Behavioral Intervention and Response team, which includes the care team plus some additional members who are crucial to stepping in if there is a threat to the community.
Fonner is not only working and communicating with these various teams, but she is working to rebrand the way people think about the purpose of Student Support. One of these steps is changing the perspective of CARE reports.
“I think we made a mistake early on using the term ‘report.’ So we’re trying to get away from that and really making it more about connection to care,” Fonner said. “I think there’s a perception when you hear the word ‘report,’ like you’re in trouble for something.
“CARE is meant to be a helpful space because you’re worried about someone,” Fonner said.
Student Support is trying to change the language, referring to it as “CARE referral.”
Fonner, who received her undergraduate and master’s degree from SRU, went on to do nonprofit work before returning a few years later to work on a grant project for violence against women, nearly 19 years ago.
About six or seven years ago, according to Fonner, the Student Affairs Office went under restructuring to coordinate student intervention. She was tasked with creating a department that would support and retain students.
“That was about six years ago, I started doing this work and really started to grow what Student Support is,” Fonner said. “The tricky part about this role, at least with the director of Student Support, there was no playbook.”
Student Support and Student Conduct have undergone many changes over the last decade, and as the new Dean of Students, Fonner is always looking for ways to improve the departments and support students most effectively.
“We are very interested in what [students] need to be successful here,” Fonner said. “Know that’s going to be different for everyone, we want to meet with you.
“We want to hear from you. We’re here to help you learn and grow.”