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 college classrooms. Campus safety experts say that the clip reveals challenges faced by faculty members who are usually the first point of contact when it comes to disruption in the classroom -- and who sometimes may not be trained on how to respond.
The incident at Florida Atlantic ended when campus police used a Taser on the student and took her to a mental health center, but not before she had uttered a stream of racially charged profanities, screamed death threats and smacked at least one classmate (see image above). Students in the classroom, though, seemed more interested in filming the spectacle than helping the instructor regain order.
Gary Pavela, director of academic integrity at Syracuse University and a lawyer who specializes 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 behavior is associated with having an audience,” he said.
In his experience, 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 there are hardly any campuses left in the country, in the aftermath of Columbine and Virginia Tech, that do not have threat assessment teams.
The biggest challenge comes when faculty members begin fearing 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 reacts by backing off, that will make matters much worse,” Pavela said. If a student who is unsettled or having problems feels that there is a professor or staff member he or she can talk to, there is a chance of gathering more information and preventing a situation from getting worse, he said.
At the University of Maryland at College Park, the chair of the Behavior Evolution and Threat Assessment team sends out a note to faculty and staff members each semester that advises them on 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 how to help the individual,” said John Zacker, chair of the threat assessment team and the vice president for student affairs at the university.
One recommendation for faculty at the university : "It is most important to remember that early intervention is vital and that trained colleagues are prepared to assist."
But disruptive classroom behaviors do not lend themselves to easy categorization, and ultimately the faculty members have to make a judgment 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 effectively managed 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.
Faculty members at Santa Monica College are trained using an online simulation program called "at-risk" where they are given five classroom scenarios and asked 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 counseling and retention at Santa Monica College. “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, has been late to class several times 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 started 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 where they talk about students in their classrooms who have exhibited behavior similar to the online simulation and what they could have done differently. “The challenge is some have this idea that this won’t happen to me,” Benson said.
But precautions and policies can only help to a certain extent, the experts said, because human behavior 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 neighborhood watch volunteer, the night before her outburst in the classroom.