The YouTube video of a Florida Atlantic University student losing control last week in a classroom and threatening her classmates has gone viral, disturbing many who teach in higher education. Campus safety experts say the clip reveals the challenges that can face faculty members who are usually the first point of contact when it comes to disruption in the classroom – and who may not be trained on how to respond.
The incident at Florida Atlantic in Boca Raton ended when campus police removed the student from the classroom, used a Taser on her and took her to a mental health centre, but not before she had unleashed a stream of racially charged profanities, screamed death threats and struck at least one classmate. Throughout the outburst, students in the classroom seemed more interested in filming the spectacle than in helping the instructor regain order.
Gary Pavela, director of academic integrity at Syracuse University and a lawyer who specialises in higher education legal issues, said the professor at FAU could have adjourned the class when the incident escalated. “At some point, you have to vacate for the safety of others. This kind of behaviour is associated with having an audience,” he said.
In his experience, he said, faculty members are sometimes reluctant to call campus police. “They might be unaware of the degree to which campus police are trained to deal with these situations,” Pavela said. And now, in the aftermath of the shootings at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech, there are hardly any campuses in the US that do not have threat-assessment teams.
The biggest challenge comes when faculty members begin to fear the students, because a video such as the Florida incident can get a lot of attention. “In order to prevent school violence, we need to get into the hearts and minds of the students. If the faculty react by backing off, that will make matters much worse,” Pavela said. If a student who is unsettled or is having problems feels that there is a professor or other staff member he or she can talk to, there is a chance of gathering more information and preventing a situation from escalating, he said.
At the University of Maryland at College Park, the chair of the Behavior Evolution and Threat Assessment team sends out a note each semester that advises all teaching staff of the resources available at the university should they encounter verbal aggression, threats of violence or someone with a psychiatric problem. “Some of our role is to help our faculty and tell them how to intervene, and [also] how to help the individual,” said John Zacker, chair of the threat-assessment team and the vice-president for student affairs at the university.
The guidelines for faculty at the university state: “It is most important to remember that early intervention is vital and that trained colleagues are prepared to assist.”
But disruptive classroom behaviours do not lend themselves to easy categorisation, and ultimately a faculty member has to make a judgement call, experts said. The danger is that being too careful can affect the classroom environment, said Ann Franke, president of Wise Results, a consulting firm on higher education legal issues. “You can have a vigorous difference of opinion without threatening one another,” she said.
Classrooms can be managed effectively if faculty members set ground rules about the kind of behavior they expect. “The professors need to be concerned with the whole class. It is inappropriate to have one student impair the learning environment. If the professor does not intervene, he or she loses credibility with the students,” Franke said.
Staff at Santa Monica College are trained using an online simulation program called “at-risk”: this presents them with five classroom scenarios and asks them to pick three students who are most at risk. “You get to be the faculty person in a classroom, and then you get to have a simulated conversation with feedback along the way,” said Brenda Johnson Benson, dean of counselling and retention at Santa Monica. “I think the faculty walk away feeling better equipped.”
One scenario in the simulation involves a student whose grades are sliding while his unexcused absences in the classroom rise. He appears disheveled, arrives late to class and also falls asleep in the classroom. A professor being trained through the program has to decide how to engage the student and help him. A “virtual coach” advises the professor on his decisions. The college began using the online program, which is also used in many other universities, after it formed a crisis-prevention team following the Virginia Tech shootings.
Often, Benson said, faculty members end up in discussions about students in their classrooms who have exhibited behaviours similar to those in the simulation and what they could have done differently. “The challenge is that some have this idea that this won’t happen to me,” Benson said.
But precautions and policies can help only to a certain extent, the experts said, because human behaviour is difficult to predict. In the case of the Florida student, she gave a poised and confident interview to a local TV station about Trayvon Martin, the central Florida teenager who was shot dead by a neighbourhood watch volunteer, the night before her outburst in the classroom.