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Protecting Students, Protecting Yourself

November 5, 2002

So if a faculty or staff member sees a student who seems withdrawn or aggressive, isolated and on the brink of failure, what should he or she do? "Approach them," says Wilson. "Not with the mindset of getting them in line, but with an offer of support and friendship. 'I've noticed you seem a little quiet. Is the class moving too fast? Is there anything I can do to help? Tell me what's going on.'"

The message to project is "somebody cares," she says.

Be prepared to step in and offer meaningful assistance, Wilson says. "Every faculty member should be networked in the community so they'll know what to do, where to refer troubled students. Maybe counseling is the answer, or maybe karate would be a good place for that student to learn to channel aggression."

What should a faculty or staff member do if confronted by a violent student? Wilson offers some tips.

Remain as calm as possible. "Don't shout. Don't debate with them. 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," she says.

Stay put. 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. Calm behavior and patience on your part may help the student become less agitated.

Listen. "What the student 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," Wilson says. "Talk about possible solutions and alternatives. Let them know there is another way. But be careful to suggest real possibilities 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 at least nearby, 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 a student 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 the student 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 student's attention is diverted you can dial 911.

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.