Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Performing Triage

Is it every appropriate to perform triage in relation to our students? I don’t mean the benign form of triage where we make assessments, and end up working more extensively with students who are in academic difficulty. Then, students whose needs are less acute receive less attention. I am talking about the more extreme form of triage that doctors in the field have to perform. In the more extreme form of medical triage a doctor may decide that a patient's injuries are so severe, and the chances of recovery so unlikely, that the patient will not receive any care. In this way, the doctor can concentrate her limited resources on patients who are more likely to recover.

Applying the analogy to the law school setting, is it ever appropriate to decide that some students are so unlikely to succeed, particularly after we have reviewed their performance during the first semester or first year of law school, that we choose not to work with them? My initial reaction to this line of thinking is that it is way beyond my pay grade! I work with student in academic difficulty, and the school’s academic rules determine who is in academic difficulty. As for incoming law students, an admissions committee has determined that the student deserves a chance at a law school education and one of my jobs is to help incoming students work up to their potential. More importantly, my subjective determination as to who may or may not succeed won’t necessarily be accurate. And, any subjective determination introduces the possibility that bias, will play a role in the decision making process.

So, if this is my thinking, then why even raise the issue of performing triage? I think some of us are performing a form of triage without necessarily viewing it as such.  Have you ever suggested to a student that she consider withdrawing from law school? I must admit that I have. Thankfully, I don’t initiate this type of conversation all that often, but it does happen. When I do have the conversation, it is usually because the student is suffering from medical or personal problems that are getting in the way of her studies and the problems are unlikely to be resolved prior to exams.

Isn’t this a form of triage? Admittedly, the student is the one deciding whether or not to withdraw, not me. Also, my motivation is to help these students, and I have concluded that the best way to help these students is to suggest withdrawing from law school at least until such time as their medical or personal problems are resolved. I know that the student’s well being is my primary motivation behind having the conversation, but don’t I benefit by having one fewer challenging student to work with? Doesn’t the school benefit, at least in a U.S. New and World Report sense, because fewer relatively weak students are taking the bar exam? Don’t my other students benefit because I now have more time to work with them?

Again, I know the student’s well being is foremost in my mind I raise the possibility of withdrawing from law school. However, when one considers the benefits that accrue to my law school when struggling law students withdraw from law school, the analogy to triage keeps popping into my mind. 

Just my two cents . . . . (hnr)

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