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5 Critical Conversations to Have With Your New College Student

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By Susan Stone and Kristina Supler

Students (and most parents) look forward to campus move-in, eagerly anticipating what the coming school year will bring. New students especially can’t wait to taste the freedom of life on their own. 

But moving onto campus also means moving into the red zone. Parents and guardians, before you hug your college student goodbye, make sure to initiate a few important conversations to help them stay safe and out of trouble — and then continue these conversations throughout the semester.

What Is the Red Zone?

The red zone refers to the time period between the start of the school year and Thanksgiving break when there is a significant increase in sexual assault. Studies show that more than 50% of campus sexual assaults happen during this six- to 10-week stretch, typically between midnight and 6 a.m. on the weekends. 

What risk factors lead to this spike in sexual assault? Many students who are away from home for the first time aren’t used to (or don’t know how to manage) their newfound independence. Some students struggle with anxiety; others haven’t found a real group of friends yet. Some students binge drink or experiment with drugs.  

The transitional period at the beginning of the school year is also a pivotal time to talk to your student about overall health and safety, as well as how to be a good member of the campus community. 

The Pandemic's Impact on the Red Zone

Experts predict that this fall, restless students will be particularly eager to rejoin the college party scene, and on most campuses there will be fewer social distancing protocols and Covid-19 regulations. 

Tracey Vitchers, executive director of It’s On Us, said in an interview with CNN, “We have this situation where we have first-year students coming to campus who we know are traditionally most vulnerable during the red zone, but we also have returning sophomores who...did not have a first-year social experience. There’s this idea of making up for lost time.”

Translation? This year’s red zone is predicted to be even riskier than normal.

5 Conversations to Have Before (or Soon After!) Your Student Leaves for College

What specific topics should parents discuss with their students heading into the red zone? 

1. Student Code of Conduct

If we’re honest with ourselves, most parents will admit we haven’t read the college or university’s code of conduct, much less gone over it with our student.

However, it’s important to be familiar with the college’s policies. If a student is accused of a conduct violation, the college will proceed by following these policies. Just like ignorance of the law is no excuse, ignorance of a campus code of conduct is also no excuse. 

Take some time to locate student conduct information on the college website (search for “student conduct” or “student handbook”), and then go over it with your student. Your student is now a member of a new community; they have standards to uphold, and you can support them in this endeavor.

2. Safe Partying

Being safe doesn’t mean never leaving your dorm room. Whether your student is into big parties or prefers smaller gatherings, remind them that they should always go out in groups rather than alone, and never leave a party without telling others where they’re going and who they’ll be with. 

Chances are good you’ve talked about alcohol use on other occasions with your student, including the potential consequences of underage drinking. If they choose to drink, they should know never to accept a drink in an open cup without seeing what has been poured into it, and they should drink in moderation.

It’s also important to keep an eye out for friends by being an active bystander. Talk to your student about how they can be ready to help someone who may be in danger or who is simply making unsafe choices. Drunken hookups expose students to more than hurt feelings or embarrassment. 

Additionally, parents can remind students that alcohol, prescription drugs and street drugs do not mix. Combining alcohol and drugs is dangerous, no matter what quantity is consumed.

3. Consent

Consent is permission to engage in sexual activity, given through words and actions. Consent must be provided at each increment of sexual activity, and consent to past sexual activity doesn’t confer consent for future sexual activity. 

A person cannot provide consent when incapacitated, and the absence of a “no” does not mean “yes.” Likewise, a person should make a request once; a yes extracted after badgering will not be considered a valid conferral of consent. 

Make sure your student reads the school’s Title IX policy and understands the definition of consent. Parents should read it as well!

4. Cheating and Plagiarism

Cheating and plagiarism allegations skyrocketed during the pandemic. Apparently, while learning remotely, some students took risks that they would never have done if they were in class, not realizing that colleges use software to detect online cheating. 

If your student uses Chegg or other homework assistance service sites, they should never give into the temptation to go onto the site to ask a question during an examination. Colleges are well aware that students use these platforms to extract test responses, and Chegg will respond to university inquiries about a particular student. 

Note: Just like students should familiarize themselves with their college code of conduct, they should read the fine print on platforms that they use.  

5. Mental Health

All families should talk openly about mental health before a student steps foot on a college campus. College is a time of change and stress — “high highs and low lows.” We have also seen that many mental health issues have become worse during the pandemic. In fact, one study reports that student mental health has become a top focus for higher education since there is a recognition that students are really struggling. Indeed, one in three college freshmen worldwide reports having a mental health disorder.

You can help your student have a good sense of their own baseline mental health. Talk about how to look out for signs that they’re struggling and discuss what the plan should be if some added support is necessary. 

For those students who talk to a therapist at home, continued therapy can be accomplished virtually. Students can touch base with their therapist as they are getting settled into school, even if it is a quick session just to continue a relationship and say that everything is going well.

For those students who do not have a regular therapist, make sure they know how to schedule an appointment with a mental health provider on campus. In our experience, we see that sometimes when a student is depressed, they become overwhelmed and struggle to navigate a university’s mental health resources. Again, this is a great thing to talk about proactively, before there’s a need for the services.

Parents should also open up about any particular mental health risks in their family. Mental health issues often surface once students leave their home and childhood friends. It’s okay to let students know if either or both parents also struggled during that time. Help your students understand that if they are struggling, they should call home. They should not suffer alone.

Further — and we cannot emphasize enough how important this conversation is for parents to have with their college-bound children — students must be strongly encouraged to stay compliant with any prescribed medications. Starting college is not the time to forget to take antidepressants or anti-anxiety medication. For students who have ADD or ADHD, compliance becomes more important when the workload of college demands more than high school.  

Additional considerations for students with academic accommodations: Students who have had a Section 504 or IEP plan for mental health issues and received accommodations should register with their new school’s office of disabilities and continue those accommodations. It's better to have support early on rather than to struggle unnecessarily – especially when colleges and universities have the ability to provide support and accommodations if needed.

Parents: Don't Underestimate Your Influence!

There is intrinsic value in having the voices of their parents and advocates ringing in students’ heads when they are at college and confronted with various choices and temptations. Your student may not follow your advice all the time, but they’ve absorbed it and the lessons you’ve taught and the unconditional love you’ve provided stays with them even when you are physically apart.

Never underestimate your influence, which can be critical to help ensure a safe and enjoyable college experience for your student — through the red zone and beyond. 

As co-chairs of KJK’s Student & Athlete Defense Practice Group, Susan Stone and Kristina Supler have represented students and faculty together at more than 100 colleges and universities across the country. From representing individuals involved in misconduct and Title IX matters to advocating for students with special education needs and those with autism or mental health issues facing criminal charges, their nationally renowned practice has earned a reputation for success. Kristina Supler and Susan Stone host a podcast entitled Real Talk With Susan and Kristina, which explores student issues and offers guidance for parents.

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