Dear Survival Guide:
I am a graduate student and also teach as an adjunct. I was recently made aware a student may be filing a formal complaint against me because I sternly told him he was not allowed to leave the class to take a phone call. He is not disputing the rule or my enforcement of it, rather claiming abuse because of my tone.
What should I do to prepare? Should I seek legal representation? I'm not sure what steps to take and I don't want to do anything in the beginning that could jeopardize my chances for an acceptable resolution.
—Nervous and Frustrated
Being complained about is never fun, so I’m sorry to hear about your situation. The first two steps, before you need think about preparing your case, are to learn: 1) exactly what the complaint against you is, and 2) what procedure will be used to assess and act upon that complaint.
For the first step of figuring out what the complaint is, or what it might be if and when it is filed, you’re in a better situation than I to assess the situation. How did you hear about the complaint? Was it through the grapevine or did you receive a formal copy of a complaint notifying you of all the particulars?
Generally speaking, you should be entitled to a complete statement of your alleged actions. In a public university, this is mandatory, as it is a government actor and must accord you due process. Even in a private institution, doing so meets American standards of fairness, so being informed the particulars of the complaint should be a part of the resolution process. After all, without that, how can you respond? Don’t let anyone tell you they can summarize the complaint for you – you should be able to see it in its entirety.
Usually, though not always, you should be told who is complaining about you. If the student complaint in your case has not yet been filed, or if you have not yet received a copy, spend the interim time reflecting on what you believe is catalyzing the complaint and your relevant actions. Think not only about what you remember doing. Think about how the interaction looked to others. While a student might not like your tone of voice, it would be unusual for a sustainable complaint to be limited only to that. Did you accompany your statements with some action? Did the student leave even though you denied him permission to do so? Did you penalize him for leaving? If you took actions against him, did you specify your reasons for doing so and can you articulate them clearly now?
It’s very important that you not talk to the complaining student or any other student in the class about the incident. You’re the instructor, so don’t take any steps that might be seen as trying to stack the deck or to intimidate or retaliate against anyone in the class. For example, do not ask students for their recollections of the incident. Any such action at this stage could put you in the wrong. Remember that you’re the authority figure and that you have power over students in the class; your actions might well be viewed by them differently than you intend them. Don’t muddy the waters, no matter how much you’re worrying and want to move things forward. Resist all impulses to “do” something before you have received the complaint and before you understand the process you’re in. It is not your place to collect witness statements or memories. If that becomes necessary, it should be done by a third party assigned to do so by your college. These cautions about your conduct apply doubly in the event your situation has already passed to the formal complaint stage of the process.
For the second step, that of understanding the process, I Googled the name of your college along with the term "complaint." The first link that popped up was a procedure that applies to student complaints about faculty conduct in academic settings. You should immediately find it and read it. Note that you have the right to receive the formal complaint promptly and to be accompanied by a representative at any investigatory meeting with the appointed finder of fact.
As is common, your institution’s procedure suggests an attempt to resolve complaints informally before filing a complaint. As a first step, students are encouraged to speak directly with the instructor or to seek the assistance of campus officials for moderating such a conversation. Has that happened yet in your case?
If that is where you are in the process, prepare carefully for your meeting. Collect your thoughts, making notes if necessary to remind yourself of the points you want to make and the sequence of events as you remember them. There are two separate elements here: whatever you said and then how you said it. As you describe it — telling a student not to leave class to take a telephone call — seems reasonable. Reflect back upon your volume, tone of voice and body language when you refused permission.
Practice talking about events calmly and without losing your composure. You are the professional here, and no matter how stressful this circumstance is for you, remember that others are going to be judging you on how you present yourself. Those judgments will be used in part to form an assessment of what likely happened in the situation the student is complaining about.
If the student’s conduct was extreme, scared others in the room, disrupted class or was threatening to you or others, you should welcome a complete investigation. Let the finder of fact come to this conclusion on his or her own, after you make your case in your meeting with that person. An investigation is the best thing that could happen to you, if it is properly conducted.
If you lost it in the moment and regret your conduct, be prepared to apologize and to do so sincerely, including restoring any lost points to the student and trying to make the student feel comfortable returning to your classroom. Consider carefully whether you need to say something to the class as a whole.
If, upon reflection, you believe your conduct was fully appropriate, be prepared to hold the line in a dignified and restrained way. Cite the effects of the behavior on other students in the classroom and the disruption to the learning process by both the call and the events surrounding the student seeking to answer it. Explain your pedagogical reasons for the actions you took, and if you can, cite any expectations for classroom conduct that apply that are in your syllabus or the student handbook. If the student is present during this meeting, be prepared to hear out the student’s presentation without interrupting, contradicting or getting defensive. This is easier said than done, and it is also essential for maintaining your professional reputation. There should be a turn for you to speak; wait for it. If it helps you stay calm and collected, take notes while the student is speaking so you can respond more precisely.
If there is a code of conduct or faculty handbook that applies to adjuncts at the college, find it and review what your rights are in managing your classroom. Most colleges give the instructor authority to eject a disruptive student from a class in progress. I took a quick look at the adjunct handbook for your institution (again, courtesy of Google), and didn’t see anything applicable, but you might be aware of other resources. One thing the handbook does, though, that might be a factor in your situation, is refer to an ongoing process of evaluation of adjuncts through in-class observations. If this is implemented at the college, it could work in your favor if you have a record of favorable teaching observations. Make sure you have copies of those on hand as you craft your response to this situation. If adjuncts are unionized at your institution, consult your rep. If adjuncts aren’t, but tenure-track faculty members are, consult an official with that union, which may well have established rights for instructors in controlling their classes.
Do you need legal representation? Probably not, though of course I don’t know the entirety of facts and there may well be aspects I do not fully appreciate from your note. If there’s any possibility, however remote, that this situation could later escalate to a legal or criminal one (say, filing of assault charges against you because you touched or shoved the student), then you need a lawyer. Otherwise, retaining a lawyer might send up red flags indicating that you’re escalating what otherwise this might be a pretty low-level complaint that will be examined and then will go away once all the facts are known.
Further, as an adjunct, the worst case here is probably that you will not be asked back to teach, not that you’ll find yourself in any disciplinary or legal process. You should be prepared not to be asked back even if you are completely cleared of any wrongdoing in the complaint, just because the appointing administrator might consider that he or she has better options than someone who catalyzed a complaint that took a lot of time. It’s not fair, but that is how some administrators may perceive the hassle associated with a complaint. This factor alone makes it all the more important that you are dignified, restrained and professional in your conduct in every contact you have throughout the process. Those people will likely identify with you and the difficulty of the situation if you let them, so take the high road and present yourself as a mature and responsible person.
While a lawyer is probably not necessary, it would be wise for you to take a dispassionate representative with you to all meetings about the complaint. You’re emotionally involved in the situation and an adviser will be able to hear and perceive aspects that your stress obscures. Choose someone from your union, if you have one, or a good friend or colleague who is a calm and sensible person. Select someone you respect so that you will trust and heed that person’s advice after the meeting(s). I have a set of complaint-handling guidelines  for administrators, posted on my Web site. While you’re not receiving the complaint here, it might be useful background for you to know how some administrators are trained to respond to and handle complaints.
Whatever you do, do not take a parent, spouse or life partner to your meetings. Someone who loves you is unlikely to be able to bring the objectivity you are seeking here and might well make the situation worse. It will send the wrong signal to the finder of fact.
I hope this gives you some context and a starting place for thinking about your situation. Good luck, and let me know how it turns out.
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