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Managing Students in Distress: Preventing and Responding to Disorderly, Disruptive or Threatening Behavior

An original version of portions of this topic presentation was made available to Flagler College by the Counseling and Career Development Center at Georgia Southern University, Statesboro, GA. Numerous modifications have been made for local use with their permission. Permission was also provided by Virginia Tech to use information published in their faculty guide for responding to threatening or disruptive student behavior.

Tragedy at Virginia Tech: 4-16-07 32 Killed, 17 wounded Shooter: Seung-Hei Cho Thousands of Virginia Tech students take part in a mass candlelight vigil to honor the victims of the shootings.

Coverage of the shooting rampage in which a gunman killed 32 people before taking his own life (Getty Images / April 17, 2007)

Managing Students in Distress 

Heartbreaking incidents of student violence on college campuses underscores the importance of finding ways to prevent, recognize, and respond to behavior leading up to this. The purpose of this presentation and the handout is to help you plan for ways to improve classroom and personal safety by:    

Identifying situational and behavioral risk factors. Presenting guidelines and strategies for preventing disruptive, threatening or violent behavior. Presenting strategies for de-escalating threatening behavior. Presenting strategies for defusing threatening behavior that seems at imminent risk of becoming violent.

General College Violent Crime Statistics Fortunately, statistics for violent crimes on college campuses indicate they occur much less than in the general population. The School Violence Resource Center ( reports that “to get a fair assessment of criminal activity on the college campus, college crime rates should be compared with the total crime rates of the United States, based on the standard population of 100,000.” The following table depicts the comparison of crime rates on college campuses with the entire nation in four violent crime categories in 2000*. However, as SVRC notes, “oftentimes crimes on college campuses do not get reported. This makes it difficult to conclude with certainty that the crime rates are indeed this low. ” *SVRC reports that the National Center for Education Statistics estimated that in 2000 there were approximately 14,979,000 students at U.S. colleges and universities in 2000.

General College Crime Statistics U.S. vs. College Crime Rates, 2000* Crime

Murder Forcible Rape Robbery Aggravated Assault

U.S. Crime Rate

5.7 32.0 144.9 323.6

College Crime Rate

.13 2.4 12.9 24.3

*Per 100,000. Source: Office of Postsecondary Education, U.S. Department of Education and Crime in the U.S. 2000

Managing Students in Distress Characteristics of Troubled Students Everyone feels upset, distressed or confused at times. However, when such feelings persist, reach frightening levels of intensity, and/or result in feeling out of control, the person is experiencing distress at a crisis level. Violence and other forms of aggressive behavior is sometimes a tragic acting out of a person in crisis. Recognizing and responding to risk factors and indicators of this -sooner than later- may avert such an outcome. The next slide identifies risk factors found to be associated with student violence on college campuses.

Managing Students in Distress Risk Factors Associated with College Violence* 

8. Breakup of a relationship.

9. Alcohol and drug usage.

10. Intolerance of differences.

11. Gang affiliation.

5. The inability to get along with others.

12. Poor attachment to school.

13. Exhibiting impulsive behavior.

6. Excessive anger.

7. Job loss.

14. Making violent drawings or writings.

   

1. A history of violence and/or being victimized. 2. Threats of violence. 3. An obsessive interest in weapons. 4. A tendency to be isolated.

*Source: Flannery, D.J., Quinn-Leering, K. (2000). Violence on college campuses: Understanding its impact on student well being. Community College Journal of Research and Practice, 24. 839-855.

Managing Students in Distress Characteristics of Troubled Students Following are a series of related slides identifying three levels of student behaviors indicative of increasing levels of distress. These behaviors apply to all forms of distress. While the behaviors identified at the lower levels do not always lead to more serious problems, identifying them early and intervening can help prevent distress from increasing. These levels are just one way of considering this. The next slide briefly considers related models.

Progression of Threat Conceptualizations 

Different approaches describe ways in which the escalation of threat may be viewed, for example: 

A Whitepaper from the National Behavior Intervention Team identifies a escalating “D” scale of Distress, Disturbance and Dysregulation/Medical Disability associated with levels of risk and aggression An approach from the National Center for Higher Education Risk Management (NCHERM) details 5 levels of risk: Mild , Moderate, Elevated, Severe, and Extreme The Center for Aggression Management describes phases, including a Trigger Phase, Escalation Phase, and Crisis Phase model The Campus Threat Assessment & Management Team Handbook identifies an escalation model incorporating Ideation, Planning, Preparation and Implementation. What all of these have in common is the concept of an identifiable progression of behavior that may be constructively addressed.

Managing Students in Distress Characteristics of Troubled Students (cont.) Level One: While these behaviors may not always be troublesome to others, they signal that the student probably needs assistance.  Poor academic performance, missed tests, or lowered performance.  Excessive absences, especially if prior class attendance was good.  Unusual or noticeably changed interaction patterns in the classroom.  Depressed or apathetic mood, tearfulness.  Behavioral agitation, excessive activity or talkativeness.  Excessive anxiety, fearfulness and/or withdrawal.  Noticeable change in appearance and hygiene.  Alcohol on the breath/evidence of substance abuse.  Inability to remain awake in class on a regular basis.

Managing Students in Distress Characteristics of Troubled Students (cont.) Level Two: These behaviors may signify a higher degree of emotional distress, impacting both personal and academic performance.  Repeated attempts to obtain deadline extensions or postpone tests.  A pattern of behaviors that disrupt class or student interactions.  A pattern of behavior that upsets or alienates others.  Lack of motivation or effort, especially if this is a noticeable change.  Inappropriate emotional reactions to situations, including:     

Inappropriate intensity for a situation (emotional over-reacting). Inappropriate duration of reaction (emotionally upset much too long). Inappropriate frequency (becomes upset on a regular basis). Inappropriate emotional response for the situation (e.g. inappropriate anger or laughter). A lack of emotional response when you would expect one.

Managing Students in Distress Characteristics of Troubled Students (cont.) Level Three: These behaviors indicate that a student is in crisis and needs emergency intervention. 

Threats of violence, aggressive behavior toward others, destruction of property, other extremely disruptive behavior. Obvious loss of contact with reality (e.g., hallucinations, thoughts or behavior inconsistent with reality). Disturbed speech or communication content (incoherent speech, disorganized thoughts). Suicidal or other self-destructive thoughts or actions (any reference to suicide as a current possibility). Homicidal thoughts/threats.

Managing Students in Distress General Guidelines and Strategies Because people and circumstances differ, and because distress can take different forms, there is no one approach for every situation. Following are some general guidelines and strategies to help prevent/reduce distress and redirect a student toward constructive action. 

Guideline: Be approachable and accessible. Strategy: Let students know you are available for help through your actions and words.

Guideline: Act sooner than later to prevent a problem from escalating. Strategy: Don’t ignore signs of distress, big changes, or inappropriate behavior. Take the initiative.

Guideline: Minimize defensiveness and embarrassment for the student. Strategy: Request to see the student in private or semi-private (assuming you feel safe).

Guideline: Communicate that you are aware and care. This can reduce feeling isolated, angry or desperate. Strategy: Listen carefully (“actively”). Demonstrate an effort to understand what the student is going through. Be nonjudgmental without necessarily agreeing.

Managing Students in Distress General Guidelines and Strategies 

Guideline: Help the student clarify the problem. Strategy: Identify the problem in a concrete manner. This can help to make it more solvable and develop a constructive problem solving approach.

Guideline: Help the student identify constructive options and steps to take. This can restore some sense of control and help put things in perspective. Strategy: Discuss resource options and help the student get help. Make the call, walk them over. Follow-up with the student.

Guideline: Involve yourself only as much as you feel comfortable. Strategy: Avoid becoming more deeply involved than time or skill permits. Don’t make promises you may not be able to keep. Once a student is getting help elsewhere for a problem, be cautious of your level of independent involvement.

Managing Students in Distress General Guidelines and Strategies 

CONSULT WITH COUNSELING CENTER STAFF If you have questions, the Counseling Center staff may be reached during working hours at 819-6305, and after working hours by calling Campus Security at 819-6200. The Counseling Center is located in the Palm Cottage at #8 Valencia Street, set back between Wiley Hall and Lewis House.

FOR EMERGENCIES INVOLVING IMMEDIATE ACTION by the Police, EMT’s, or other emergency response agencies FIRST CALL 911, then follow-up with a call to Campus Security 819-6200 (200 from a campus phone), appropriate supervisors, and the Counseling Center.

Managing Students in Distress Disorderly, Disruptive or Threatening Behavior Flagler College Policies on Disorderly/Disruptive Behavior Aggressive or violent behavior may be preceded by less destructive behavior that is disorderly or disruptive. Flagler College has policies prohibiting disorderly or disruptive behavior. These policies are described in the Flagler College Catalog under “General Conduct Regulations” in the “Student Life” section; and, in the Student Handbook under “Safety and Security” in the “Academic and Administrative Policies and Judicial Procedures” section. Both the catalog and handbook are accessible on-line through the Flagler College home page. On the home page the Catalog is an option under the Academics tab, and the Student Handbook is an option in the Administration/Policies section under the Students/Faculty/Staff tab.

Managing Students in Distress Disorderly, Disruptive or Threatening Behavior Be Prepared 

If you encounter an individual whose behaviors indicate a problem with anger or aggression, your options will be determined by many different factors. For example, your response will be much different with a student repeatedly getting angry in class than with a student who surprises you with violent threats.   

In an ideal situation you may be able to address a problem early through preventative methods. In other situations, even with a distressed student, you may have time to gather information, consider options, and assist the student in getting help. Finally, there may be situations where you have to act quickly based upon a predetermined plan or strategies.

No matter what, being prepared with options, and having a plan/strategies can improve your chances of managing a potentially threatening situation .

Managing Students in Distress Disorderly, Disruptive or Threatening Behavior 

 

The following slides provide suggestions for preventing and responding to disruptive and threatening behavior. Of course there is no guarantee that a strategy will work. As we move away from “prevention” to more volatile situations, it becomes more difficult to predict a distressed person’s response to efforts to manage the situation. However, planning responses for threatening behavior -before it occurs- can at least prepare you with options that may work, and hopefully help you think more clearly in tense situations.

Managing Students in Distress Disorderly, Disruptive or Threatening Behavior Prevention Addressing such behavior before or when it first appears may prevent it from occurring, or if it does occur, from escalating in the future. Some suggestions are as follows:  Make classroom behavioral standards clear from the outset.  Discuss how practicing tolerance is part of learning.  When you see evidence of behavior that has the potential to get out of hand (e.g., inappropriate anger in class discussion), use this as an opportunity to remind the entire class of acceptable behavior and/or the challenge of developing tolerance. Don’t wait too long.  Model appropriate behavior. Reinforce students when appropriate.  Let students know you are available.  Meet sooner than later when you see a problem.  Involve others if you feel it is necessary (e.g., department chair, Dean of Students, Counseling Center, Behavioral Intervention Team).

Managing Students in Distress Disorderly, Disruptive or Threatening Behavior Act Early When Concerned  Take encounters that cause concern for your personal safety very seriously, including phone calls, notes or e-mails.  Inform campus security, your supervisor, and the Dean of Students of your concerns. Control the Environment When Concerned  Do not isolate yourself when meeting with someone who has caused some concern.   

If in your office keep your door open. Inform a co-worker of the meeting so they can “check-in” with a call or knock. Establish a code word to let others know you’re concerned/need help.

Avoid making the person feel trapped or cornered.   

Have access to an exit, but don’t block or stand in the way of it. Maintain distance between yourself and the student. Do not psychologically corner the student through threats, pressure, etc.

Managing Students in Distress Disorderly, Disruptive or Threatening Behavior Responding to Increasingly Aggressive Behavior. The recommendations below emphasize the importance of : noticing distress indicators early; using strategies to encourage a problem solving approach; and controlling the emotional momentum of the encounter.  Notice early non-verbal, paralinguistic warning signs (e.g., jerky movements, fast breathing, raised voice pitch and volume).  Ask the person to tell you his/her goals from the meeting.  Remind the person you want to work with them to help.  Speak calmly: control your rate, pitch and volume of speaking.  Use other conversational means to slow emotional momentum. (e.g., recapping, restating your interest in helping, raising questions)  Take a short break (bathroom, etc.) this may also be used as an opportunity to alert security (819-6200) or co-workers.

Managing Students in Distress Disorderly, Disruptive or Threatening Behavior Mistakes to Avoid. Don’t forget that you may be talking with someone who is not as capable as you of being as rational.  Do not minimize or ignore early warning signs.  Don’t let the other person work themselves up more and more. 

Similarly, don’t let the other person set the emotional tone. 

Remember to use your voice qualities to set the tone.

Don’t fall prey to a power struggle with a person potentially in crisis. 

Acknowledge you see they are upset; shift to setting goals, recapping, etc.

Avoid appearing overbearing, condescending, argumentative, hostile, punitive or threatening; instead remind them you want to help.

Do not assume the usual rules apply.  

Don’t press for “rational” explanations/justifications for their behavior. Do not “call their bluff”.

Managing Students in Distress Disorderly, Disruptive or Threatening Behavior If you have been successful in de-escalating a situation and identifying what they want/need, inform them that you will need to involve other resources as part of a plan to help. ď Ž Inform the student it will be necessary to meet with a counselor at the Counseling Center ASAP. ď Ž Let the student know that it will be necessary to contact your supervisors to discuss options. Notify Security/others of your concerns as appropriate.

Managing Students in Distress Disorderly, Disruptive or Threatening Behavior Responding to Aggressive or Potentially Aggressive Behavior If a student produces a weapon, attempt to stop the behavioral momentum, alert others if possible, introduce doubts, and convince him/her to choose other options.  Ask them to put it away or down so you can talk undistracted.  If possible, use your “code word” to alert others.  Tell the student he/she has totally succeeded in convincing you as to how upset he/she is, and it is not necessary to go any further.  Remind them there are other options to address what they are upset about, and that you will do your best to help them.  Remind them no one has been hurt, and it’s not too late for other options. 

Similarly, if concerns about the consequences of their behavior come up, remind them no one has been hurt yet and that will make a big difference.

Urge the student to reconsider all of the consequences of hurting someone. Remind them it is not necessary.

Managing Students in Distress Disorderly, Disruptive or Threatening Behavior If you are successful in defusing a situation where there is a weapon, the options after depend of the situation. Security/police are the best resource for what to do next. The primary goal is safety. Some possible options:         

Reinforce his/her decision to calm down and say you are too upset to continue the meeting (or other reason to leave), then call Security. If student is remaining, quietly get others to leave Ask them to leave the weapon and leave, then call Security. Inform them security needs to be notified, but that you will inform them that the student has been cooperative. If it seems safe, you may inform the student that things will go much smoother without a weapon present, and remove it if possible. Inform him/her it is in their best interest to cooperate. If they ask for more details as to what will occur, inform him/her you do not know for sure other than people will be trying to help. If you don’t call 911, Security will when you mention a weapon is involved. Follow-up with your supervisor, and BIT.

Managing Students in Distress 

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Summary There are factors and behavioral indicators associated with a higher risk of student distress, including threatening behavior. Take warning signs seriously; address problems early. Become familiar with guidelines/strategies to prevent such behavior in the classroom or when meeting with a student. Become familiar with strategies to de-escalate threatening behavior when it starts to intensify. Become familiar with strategies to defuse a volatile situation when the risk of violence seems imminent. Have a plan for yourself and co-workers to help you be prepared to prevent and respond to threatening behavior.

To Access this presentation on line: Flagler College Home Page Health & Safety Link under Campus Life (page bottom) Counseling Center/Visit Counseling Center Website link Resources link (on the left) under Faculty/Staff Training (page bottom) or

Managing students in distress  

Preventing and Responding to Disorderly, Disruptive or Threatening Behavior

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