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Violence in the classroom: What should faculty do?

September 23, 2003
September 23, 2003

In the Feb. 4, 2002 issue of InnerAction, following the shooting deaths of a dean, faculty member and student at the Appalachian School of Law in Grunding, W. Va., InnerAction included an article on what faculty members should do if confronted with a violent person in the classroom. Because of the recent at hostage situation at Dyersburg Community College, the third incident of violence in a college classroom in the last two years, we are running that information again as a service to our readers. Providing the information is Dr. Patti Wilson, assistant professor and coordinator of Austin Peay's school psychology program.

Remain as calm as possible. "Don't shout. Don't debate with the person. Don't tell them 'You don't want to do this,' because at that moment they do. Let them know you want to understand why they feel this way. Say 'Talk to me. I want to understand.' The more you can get them to talk, the calmer they may become," Wilson says.

Stay put. If you're alone with the perpetrator, don't suggest that the two of you go someplace and talk. Don't go where other people could be endangered, she says.

Don't rush. Talk slowly. Move slowly. Calmness and patience on your part may help the person become less agitated.

Listen. "What the person is looking for is to be heard," Wilson says. Long-term frustration has led them to believe they must take extraordinary measures to make that happen.

Offer options, support. People become desperate because they feel they're against a wall. Talk about possible solutions and alternatives. Let them know there is another way. But be careful to suggest real possibilities." Wilson says, and to convey a sense of real concern. "Offer not only words of advice but your extended hand, your desire to help them through this."

Look for an exit. But don't be obvious about it, Wilson says. "If your eyes move around too much you'll look anxious, and that can accelerate the situation. Or they may read your fear as anger."

Averting Disaster
While it's important to know what to do in the middle of an emergency, it's even more beneficial to know how to avoid such situations.

Here are some additional tips from Wilson:

If you observe a student acting suspiciously, contact security.

If you've had an uncomfortable interaction with a student in the past, make sure you meet with the student only when others are present or nearby, just in case there's a problem.

If you're leaving the campus after dark and you have any concerns about possible reprisal from a student, ask security officials to escort you to your car.

If someone accosts you, don't try to overpower him. Both of you are likely to be hurt. It is best to try to "outsmart" and outlast them, Wilson says. Ask if it would be possible for you to contact a loved one, just so they won't worry. Have the campus police number-4848-memorized. That way, if you're allowed to make a phone call, you can call them.

Carry a cell phone if you can, so if the person's attention is diverted you can dial 911.

In the case of students, Wilson offers one final piece of advice: Prevent so you won't have to react. "Faculty should get to know their students. Let them know you're available to talk, that you want to help. The more 'perceived' support they have, the less likely they are to become desperate and angry." And, we might add, dangerous.
Debbie Denton