Essay - Recognizing And Responding To Disruptive Students (Bruce Schultz)


Some disruptions are worse than others, of course, but how do you tell the difference? Can you tell a naïve disruption from a threatening one? Do you know what the policies are at your university and where you can go for assistance and support? This essay offers a strategy that leads to better threat assessment and a practical approach to handling disruptions at every level to prevent them from going further.

Recognizing and Responding to Disruptive Students

Dr. Bruce Schultz
Dean of Students and Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Development
University of Alaska Anchorage

In the spring of 2007, one of our worst nightmares came true. A disturbed student went on a shooting rampage at Virginia Tech University, killing 32 of his fellow students and teachers, and then, finally, himself. Amid the shock, anger, and fear that rippled across the academic world, many asked themselves the same questions. How dangerous have our campuses become? Shouldn’t someone have seen this coming? Is there anything we can do to make sure this never happens again?

The bad news is there are no easy answers. Identifying potentially violent students is extremely difficult, even for teams of professionals; for the faculty member acting alone, it is next to impossible. The problem, says a 2003 National Research Council report, “is that…the offenders are not that unusual; they look like their classmates at school.” There is no accu- rate or useful profile of the “typical” school shooter; they come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds and family situations and have a wide range of friend- ship patterns and academic histories. Few of them show a marked change in behavior prior to their attack.

The most promising approach for identifying potentially violent students is known as threat assessment. It is based on observable behaviors compiled from multiple sources and reviewed by a trained assessment team. Chances are your campus has some version of such a team in place. It’s a good idea to find out and familiarize yourself with the processes and individuals on your campus. These are your best resources in an emergency. You hope you’ll never need them, but it’s best to know how to find them, just in case.

The good news is that most disruptions never get that far, especially if you cultivate habits and practices to deal with milder behaviors as they happen.

As soon as it is evident that a student’s behavior is disruptive, address it. Be specific in describing the disruptive behavior and offer alternative methods of dealing with the cause of the behavior. It is usually enough to call the student’s attention to it. If the student understands your concerns and demonstrates an appropriate change of behavior, acknowledge it. Document both the behavior and
the subsequent meeting for your own records.

If the disruptive behavior continues, you may wish to consult with a colleague, supervisor, department chair, counselor, dean of students, or other individuals on your campus in a position to offer assistance and support. Repeated disruptive behavior must be met with a more formalized approach that includes clear limit-setting and consequences for continuing the behavior. Depending on the circumstances, you may need formal intervention or emergency assistance as well.

Student behavior can be just as different as students are themselves. Over- or underreacting almost always leads to further problems. To know how best to respond to the behavior, first categorize it. We have identified five levels of disruptive behaviors and outlined appropriate responses to each.

Naïve disruptions include students answering a cell phone, passing notes, muttering to oneself or a neighbor, and similar behaviors during class. The important thing is to address them immediately. Provide a clear, concise, constructive, non-belittling instructional directive: “It’s time to stop that now.” or “That is disruptive.” If possible, refer to classroom rules or codes of conduct you’ve created together or defined in your syllabus. Make a note of the behavior and your directive immediately after class.

Usually, that’s all it will take. If the behavior persists, however—even after you’ve called it to the student’s attention—you can assume it is intentional.

Intentional disruptions include persistent questions or arguments and attention-getting or derisive comments. Repeat your directive if necessary, and this time add clarification and consequences: “Your side comments are disruptive. I expect you to listen respectfully when others are speaking and to follow our classroom discussion rules.” “Please see me after class and we’ll talk about this further.” “I’m sure you want to do the right thing.” Hold your after-class conference in an open space, possibly with a third person in attendance. State what will happen if the behavior persists; depending on your campus policies, the student may be referred to the dean’s office or temporarily restricted from attending class. Document the behavior and this follow-up conference, noting dates, times, and others in attendance.

Challenging behaviors are similar to intentional disruptions, but with a slightly more aggressive or personal edge. They include questioning your position, credentials, “unreasonable expectations,” or grading policies. When the content of the challenge changes from the topic to you, it’s time to call for backup. Set and enforce limits on these behaviors with immediate directives. Get help from a colleague, department chair, counselor, or dean. Meet with the student during a break, after class, or some other time, and document that meeting thoroughly. A counselor or the dean of students may
find it effective for the student to enter into a behavioral agreement in order for him or her to continue participating in the class.

Refusals. Occasionally, a student may refuse to stop the behavior, or may be unwilling or unable to follow the directive. If a student refuses to comply with your directive, it’s time to initiate a class break. During the break, inform the student that he or she must leave class and may not return until after meeting with you (or you and a colleague or some other person you specify, such as the dean
of students).

“Doing _____ during class is continuing to be disruptive. I asked you to stop and you refused. Therefore, you may not attend this class again until you meet with the dean of students and receive permission.”

Know where the nearest phone is, and have your emergency phone numbers handy in case you need them. After the situation is under control, document it, and notify the appropriate university authority.

Intimidating or threatening behaviors are the worst-case scenario. “If you know what’s best for you, you’ll give me an A.” “Watch out. I know what your car looks like.” If you receive threats like these, immediately get away from the student, get another faculty or staff person to escort you to safety, and notify campus security or police. This response will be easier if you have a plan in mind before you need it. Apply a little situational awareness beforehand by noting the staff offices and telephones nearest to your classroom. Know the phone numbers for emergency personnel, or have them handy on your cell phone or in your briefcase.

You’ll have to judge these situations on a case-by-case basis, but it is usually a good idea to try conversation first. Careful listening and courteous dialogue—perhaps with participation by a department chair or student conduct administrator—will often resolve the problem. At a minimum, the discussion may prove valuable in any subsequent threat assessment process.

Please do not give assurances of confidentiality. A student who appears to pose a threat to self or others needs to be referred for help and supervision. College teachers should not abrogate their traditional role as guides and mentors, but they must not assume the responsibilities of therapists or police officers.

Research on violence prevention suggest schools and colleges need more cross-generation contact. According to the NRC report, “The insularity of adolescent society serves to magnify slights and reinforce social hierarchies; correspondingly, it is only through exchange with trusted adults that teens can reach the longer-term view that can come with maturity.” As one teacher has put it, “the only real way of preventing school violence is to get into their heads and their hearts.”

The best way to get inside students heads and hearts is through deeper levels of engagement. Many students value meaningful conversations with their faculty, both inside and outside of class. More than ever before, faculty members are in the best position to understand a student’s unique situation and to connect him or her with appropriate campus resources.