Disruptive, Demanding or Threatening Student Behavior

Addressing Classroom Disruption and Threatening Behavior

Successful class climates contribute to student learning and limit the sort of distractions that stifle learning.  The following guidance from the Office of Student Conduct should help to create a class community in which student learning is not impeded by disruption.  It is important to recognize that the dynamic between instructors and undergraduate students becomes on rare occasions an obstacle to learning and possibly a threat to everyone in the classroom.  Creating and sustaining a course structure that supports learning and incorporates the needs of students (e.g., relying on more than one teaching strategy) will help to preempt disruptions; however, those who teach should be prepared to respond to disruptions if and when they arise and on very rare occasions to respond to students who are aggressive and threatening.  If you feel threatened by a student or any other person, do not hesitate to call 911.

Further advice from the Office of Student Conduct is available at osc.umd.edu/OSC/GeneralFacultyDisruption.aspx:

Classroom disruptions by students occur seldom at the University.  The Office of Student Conduct offers the following advice to assist faculty members who have never encountered a disruptive student and may be unsure how to respond.

Faculty members are responsible for management of the classroom environment.  Teachers (as one court recently suggested) can be compared to judges: both focus on relevant issues, set reasonable time limits, assess the quality of ideas and expression, and make sure participants are heard in an orderly manner.  While their ultimate goals may be different, both judges and teachers need to exercise authority with a sense of fairness, and with appreciation for the reality of human fallibility.

Classroom disruption should be seen as a disciplinary offense, as defined by the University’s Code of Student Conduct.  The term “classroom disruption” means behavior a reasonable person would view as substantially or repeatedly interfering with the conduct of a class.  Examples include repeatedly leaving and entering the classroom without authorization, making loud or distracting noises, persisting in speaking without being recognized, or resorting to physical threats or personal insults.

Both students and faculty members have some measure of academic freedom.  University policies on classroom disruption cannot be used to punish lawful classroom dissent.  The lawful expression of a disagreement with the teacher or other students is not in itself “disruptive” behavior.

Rudeness, incivility, and disruption are often distinguishable, but may intersect.  In most instances, it’s better to respond to rudeness by example and suasion (e.g., advising a student in private that he or she appears to have a habit of interrupting others).  Rudeness can become disruption when it is repetitive, especially after a warning has been given.

Strategies to prevent and respond to disruptive behavior include the following:

  • Clarify standards for the conduct of your class.  For example, if you want students to raise their hands for permission to speak, say so, using reminders, as needed.
  • Serve as a role model for the conduct you expect from your students.
  • If you believe inappropriate behavior is occurring, consider a general word of caution, rather than warning a particular student (e.g., “we have too many contemporaneous conversations at the moment; let’s all focus on the same topic”).
  • If the behavior is irritating, but not disruptive, try speaking with the student after class.  Most students are unaware of distracting habits or mannerisms, and have no intent to be offensive or disruptive.
  • There may be rare circumstances when it is necessary to speak to a student during class about his or her behavior.  Try to do so in a firm and friendly manner, indicating that further discussion can occur after class.  Public arguments and harsh language must be avoided.
  • A student who persists in disrupting a class may be directed to leave the classroom for the remainder of the class period.  Whenever possible, prior consultation should be undertaken with the Department Chair and the Director of Student Conduct (301.314.8204).
  • If a disruption is serious, and other reasonable measures have failed, the class may be adjourned and the campus police summoned.  Teachers must not use force or threats of force, except in immediate self-defense.  Prepare a written account of the incident.  Identify witnesses for the Campus Police, as needed.

The Office of Student Conduct can help by reviewing University disciplinary regulations with you and meeting with accused students formally or informally.  It is better to report disruptive incidents promptly, even if they seem minor.  One of the Office of Student Conduct preferred strategies is to develop behavioral contracts with students, so they have clear guidelines about what behavior is expected of them.  In the most serious cases, the Office of Student Conduct can suspend students immediately, pending disciplinary proceedings, or medical evaluation.

The Behavior Evaluation and Threat Assessment (BETA) Resource Group consists of representatives from the Counseling Center, Mental Health Service, Office of Student Conduct, and Department of Public Safety.  The group is available to meet with faculty or staff members who have concerns about a student’s behavior and is able to provide guidance for an appropriate response.

In the event of an emergency or crisis situation, immediately contact the University Department of Public Safety – 911 OR 301.405.3333 (cellular and non-University line).  The general information telephone number is 301.405.3555.

The Counseling Center and Student Emergencies

The University Counseling Center has produced a guide, Helping Students in Distress, which includes clear strategies for responding to these uncommon incidents.  The Counseling Center offers the following general guidance for responding to student emergencies:

  • For consultation with a counselor, call 301-314-7651, or walk to the Counseling Center in the Shoemaker Building.
  • If the student requires immediate medical attention, call or go to Urgent Care (301-314-9144 in the Health Center, or go directly to the hospital.  If you know hospitalization is needed, you can also call 911.
  • If the student is unmanageable (e.g., aggressive, hostile, refusing care), call the University Police (911 or 301-405-3333) for assistance in transporting the student to the appropriate facility.
  • If you are directly threatened by a student or feel at risk, call the University Police (911 or 301-405-3333).
  • If you are unsure how best to deal with a situation that is not immediately dangerous, call the Behavioral Evaluation and Threat Assessment (BETA) Resource Group (301-314-8428) for legal, disciplinary, and counseling/psychiatric consultation.
  • For more guidance on responding to threatening situations, consult the Division of Student Affairs program, Behavior Evaluation & Threat Assessment Resource Group (BETA).

The Demanding Student

The Counseling Center’s Helping Students in Distress offers helpful guidelines for dealing with demanding students:

What to do:

  • Talk to the student in a place that is safe and comfortable.
  • Remain calm and in control.
  • Set clear limits and hold the student to the allotted time for the discussion.
  • Emphasize behaviors that are and aren’t acceptable.
  • Respond quickly and with clear limits to behavior that disrupts class, study sessions, or consultations.
  • Be prepared for manipulative requests and behaviors.
  • Call the Counseling Center WARMLINE (301-314-7651) for help with identifying strategies for dealing with disruptive behaviors.
  • Refer the student to the Counseling Center for counseling and/or a referral for off-campus therapy.
  • Contact the Behavior Evaluation and Threat Assessment (BETA) Resource Group (301-314-8428) for legal, disciplinary, and counseling/psychiatric consultation.

Avoid:

  • Arguing with the student
  • Giving in to inappropriate requests
  • Adjusting your schedule or policies to accommodate the student
  • Ignoring inappropriate behavior that has an impact on you or other students
  • Feeling obligated to take care of the student or feeling guilty for not doing more
  • Allowing the student to intimidate you

The Severely Disoriented or Psychotic Student

Guidelines from the Counseling Center’s Helping Students in Distress include the following.

What to do:

  • Consult with a professional at the Mental Health Service (301-314-8106) or Counseling Center (301-314-7651) to assess the student’s level of dysfunction.
  • Speak to the student in a direct and concrete manner regarding your plan for getting him/her to a safe environment.
  • Accompany the student to the Mental Health Service in the Health Center or the Counseling Center, or arrange for a police escort (911) to a local hospital’s emergency room if the student is highly impaired.
  • Recognize that psychotic states can involve extreme emotion or lack of emotion and intense fear to the point of paranoia.
  • Recognize that a student in this state may be dangerous to self or others.

Avoid:

  • Assuming the student will be able to care for him/herself
  • Agitating the student
  • Arguing with unrealistic thoughts
  • Assuming the student understands you
  • Allowing friends to care for the student without getting professional advice
  • Getting locked into one way of dealing with the student, be flexible
  • Assuming the family knows about the student’s condition

The Aggressive or Potentially Violent Student

Guidelines from the Counseling Center’s Helping Students in Distress include the following.

What to do:

  • Assess your level of safety.  Call 911 if you feel in danger.
  • Remain in an open area with a visible means of escape.
  • Explain to the student the behaviors that are unacceptable.
  • Stay calm and gain control of the situation by setting limits.
  • Use a time-out strategy (that is, ask the student to reschedule a meeting with you once she/he has calmed down) if the student refuses to cooperate and remains aggressive and/or agitated.
  • Consult with professionals at the Counseling Center (301-314-7651).
  • Contact the Campus Police (301-405-3555) to see if they have a record of previous abuse by this student.
  • Contact the Campus Police (301-405-3555) to have them come to monitor the situation. 

Avoid:

  • Staying in a situation in which you feel unsafe
  • Meeting alone with the student
  • Engaging in a screaming match or behaving in other ways that escalate anxiety and aggression
  • Ignoring signs that the student’s anger is escalating
  • Touching the student or crowding his/her sense of personal space
  • Ignoring a gut reaction that you are in danger

Helping Students in Distress is a booklet that offers guidance for responding to many more types of situations and for identifying distress.  It is available online via the Counseling Center: http://www.counseling.umd.edu/CS/HSID.pdf.