Dealing with Behavior Issues

Students with Disruptive Behavior: A Guide for SJSU Faculty & Staff

What Constitutes Disruption?

"Disruption," as applied to the academic setting, means behavior that a reasonable faculty or staff member would view as interfering with normal academic functions.

Examples include, but are not limited to:

  • Persistently interrupting or using disrespectful adjectives in response to the comments of others.
  • Use of obscene or profane language.
  • Persistent and disruptive late arrival to or early departure from class without permission.
  • Physical threats, harassing behavior, or personal insults (even when stated in a joking manner).
  • Use of personal electronic devices such as pagers, cell phones, PDAs in class, unless it is part of the instructional activity.

Prevention

The best time to deal with disruption is before it begins.  When discussing standards at the beginning of the semester, consider an approach that encourage expression of ideas and opinions that are relevant to the course objectives versus shutting down critical thought processes.  Faculty can take steps to reduce the likelihood of disruptive behaviors in the classroom by encouraging appropriate behavioral or establishing appropriate behavior standards.

  • Explicitly state expectations for conduct in the syllabus.  Include behavioral specifics, such as "turn off pagers and cell phones before entering the classroom."  Explain consequences for inappropriate behavior and follow through.
  • Review these expectations with students during the first class meeting.
  • Model respectful communication and behavior with your students.
  • Facilitate respectful exchange of ideas among your students.
  • Address problems consistently and in a timely manner.

Handling Classroom Disruptions

In cases of direct threat to you or others, call the University Police Department 408-924-2222 immediately. (Consider saving this phone # into your cell phone.)

Otherwise: 

  1. For an isolated incident, have a private conversation (after class or schedule a meeting) with the student to discuss the behavioral disruptions you are observing, clarify expectations, and clearly and calmly state the consequence of not making necessary adjustments.  Students’ behaviors may not be intentional, and immediately addressing them will be helpful and may be an educational opportunity.  It is also helpful to start the conversation with acknowledging the student’s strengths (e.g., passionate about the topic, good attendance, motivated in class, etc.).
  2. Follow up with a written summary to the student, re-stating your care, expectations, and consequences for continued disruption.  Consequences may include referring student to the Department Chair, the Associate Dean, and/or Dean of the College, the Office of the Student Conduct and Ethical Development, and/or the University Police.
  3. Students who chronically disrupt and interfere with the learning environment may be asked to leave the class for the remainder of that class period.  University Police may be called to remove the student if necessary.  Although permanent removal from a class requires initiative of formal disciplinary proceedings, faculty may eject a student from a single class when necessary to end a seriously disruptive or threatening situation.
  4. Consultation with your Department Chair, College Dean, or supervisor may be helpful in developing a plan for dealing with a disruptive student.  If you remove any student from your class, it is recommended that you immediately inform your department Chair.
  5. Faculty or staff can consult with the Office of Student Conduct and Ethical Development or the Ombudsperson, and may consider filing a Complaint of Misconduct.
  6. Formal disciplinary action may include:  Disciplinary reprimand, probation, suspension or dismissal.
  7. If the student seems to be struggling emotionally or personally, their behavior and thought process may have been negatively impacted.  State your concern and care with the student.  Please feel free to consult with Counseling and Psychological Services at 408-924-5910.
  8. Keep records of the difficulties, and your efforts to resolve them, including all written communication.  
  9. If the disruptive behavior continues, consider consulting with Student Conduct and Ethical Development Office at 408-924-5985.

Threatening or Potentially Violent Situations

Call University Police (911 on any campus phone; or 408-924-2222 from your cell phone) when:

  • You are or another person is in immediate danger.
  • A student is about to harm him/herself.
  • A student seems out of control and about to put others in harm’s way.

If the student’s behavior leaves you uneasy and/or there was direct or implied threat, harassment, and/or stalking, it is recommended that you immediately discuss the incident(s) with your supervisor or Department Chair.

You or your supervisor may consider completing an incident report to the campus Behavioral Intervention Team. It is helpful when such document describes specific behaviors, with time and date of the incident. University Police will also assist you in assessing the threat and determining possible steps to take. 

If a threat does not seem imminent or urgent and you would prefer to file a report anonymously, please consider contacting TipNow:


De-Escalating Aggressive Behaviors

In cases of direct threat to you or others, call the University Police Department (408) 924-2222 immediately. (Consider saving this phone # into your cell phone.)

Ensuring your own safety:

  • Prior to the meeting, alert a colleague or supervisor that you may be meeting with a potentially violent person, so that your colleague may be ready to call the police or others for assistance.
  • Consider holding the meeting in a more public arena, perhaps having another colleague or supervisor in the meeting with the person.
  • If you decide to meet with the person privately, keep your door open when meeting with a potentially violent person.
  • Arrange your office furniture so that you have a clear path to the door to exit if need be, and the other person won’t be as easily able to block your path.

If a person becomes aggressive or seems potentially violent, first ensure your own safety.  Take long, deep breaths to stay as calm as possible. 

DO:

  • It is generally helpful to meet with a disruptive person in private.  Reduce stimulation.  This provides an opportunity for the faculty or staff to address issues directly without interruption or shaming the person.
  • Use low, deeper tones, and avoid raising your voice or talking too fast.
  • Use gentle, soft voice, speaking slowly and confidently.
  • Allow the person to tell you what is upsetting them.
  • Acknowledge the person’s strengths (e.g., good attendance, desire to perform well, etc.)
  • Stay calm and paraphrase your understanding of the person’s experiences.  Set aside your own thoughts and responses and focus on what you are hearing.
  • Validate the person’s possible emotions and what is upsetting them.
  • Be specific and gentle, but firmly directive about the behavior that you will accept.  For example, “Please sit down.”  Or, “Please lower your voice and do not scream at me.” Or, “Please do not thrash your arms like that.  Please keep them lowered.”
  • Explain your intent before making any moves (e.g., “I’d like to get some water.  Would you like some?”  Or, I’m going to move behind you to close that window.)
  • Take deep breaths, slowing down your breathing so that you remain calm.
  • If the tension in the room is not dissipating, consider taking a quick break.  (Apologize in a calm tone for needing to step out just for a couple of minutes, stating for example that you would like to consult with a supervisor; that you would like to get a glass of water, and offer one to the person; etc.)
  • Ask the person what would be helpful from you.  Ask for permission to problem-solve the issue.  The person may just be venting and may not want you to problem-solve with them.
  • Summarize what the person has said, and summarize any agreed upon resolutions.

DO NOT:

  • Do not argue.  When a person is already agitated or angry, he/she may escalate if they do not feel heard.  Even if you are correct, arguing at this point will likely increase aggression.  It is more helpful to show that you heard them and to de-escalate than to be correct.
  • Do not focus on the person, and do not use adjectives or labels to describe the person.  Instead, do focus on the specific behavior.
  • Do not restrict the person’s movement.  If he/she wants to stand, allow them.  Do not corner them.
  • Do not meet behind closed door if you foresee possible danger.
  • Do not touch the person or make sudden moves.
  • Do not threaten the person.  Threatening could increase someone’s fear, which could prompt defense or aggression.
  • Do not press for explanation about their behavior.  Avoid “why” questions; these tend to increase a person’s defenses.
  • Do not take the person’s behavior or remarks personally.  Disruptive or aggressive behavior generally results from other life problems.

When to Consult with Someone

Faculty members and staff are educators, and we all strive to be helpful and caring.  Sometimes, being forced into another role (such as counselor or friend) by a student situation can be uncomfortable. In such situations, consider consulting with campus resources that may be helpful in resolving issues with the student. A range of support services and information are available to faculty, staff, and to students.

The staff at Student Conduct and Ethical Development provides information and support regarding application of the Student Conduct Code.  Referrals can also be made to Counseling and Psychological ServicesAccessible Education Center, and/or the Ombudsperson.

Some disruptive students may have emotional or mental struggles, and some may be disabled and protected under the Rehabilitation Act/ADA.  We appreciate campus community members’ sensitivity to students’ emotional struggles and for referring them to appropriate resources on campus.  All students are held to the same standards of conduct.


Not Sure Whether to Call for Help?

If you can't decide whether what you're observing in the student warrants police or BIT involvement, perhaps the following will be helpful.

At one time or another, everyone feels depressed or upset. However, there are three situations involving student distress which might suggest that the problems are more than the “normal” ones.

#1: Imminent Dangers/Critical Problems

These behaviors usually show that the student is in crisis and needs emergency care:

  • Highly disruptive behavior (hostility, aggression, etc.)
  • Violent or homicidal threats
  • Inability to communicate clearly (garbled, slurred speech, disjointed thoughts)
  • Apparent loss of contact with reality (seeing/hearing things that are not there, beliefs or actions at odds with reality)
  • Overt suicidal thoughts, gestures, threats

Responses to Imminent Dangers /Critical Problems

  • Stay calm.
  • Call 911 from a campus phone or 924-2222 to reach UPD
  • Inform your chair or manager
  • Inform a BCIT member

#2: Ambiguous Problems/Dangers

Although not disruptive to others in your classroom or office, the following may indicate that something is wrong and that help may be needed:

Emotions
  • Inappropriate or exaggerated emotional reactions to situations
  • OR a lack of emotional response to stressful events
  • Depressed or apathetic mood, excessive activity or talkativeness, evidence of crying,
  • Noticeable change in appearance and hygiene, alcohol on the breath, etc.
Behavior
  • Behavior which disrupts your office, or class or student interactions
  • Unusual or noticeably changed interaction patterns, e.g. avoidance of participation, excessive anxiety when called upon to speak, domination of discussions, etc.
  • Inability to remain awake in class
Academics
  • Extremely poor academic performance, or a change from high to low grades
  • Excessive absences, especially if prior class attendance was good
  • Repeated attempts to obtain deadline extensions or postpone tests

Possible Responses to Ambiguous Problematic Behavior

  • Talk to the student in private when you both have time
  • Express your concern in non-judgmental terms
  • Listen to the student and repeat the main point of what the student is saying
  • Clarify the pros and cons of each option for handling the problem
  • Ask direct questions, e.g. it is okay to ask if they are drunk, confused, or have thoughts of harming themselves
  • Make appropriate referrals if necessary
  • Make sure the student understands what action is necessary
  • Inform your chair or manager
  • Consult with Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) counselor on duty 8:30-4:30 M-F.

#3: Suicidality

It is especially important that staff and faculty are aware of what can be done to prevent the tragedy of suicide on college campuses.

What We Know about Suicide:
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students
  • Most people who die by suicide have given some warning of their intent.
  • Students who are thinking about suicide will tell peers before anyone else
  • 80% don't come to CAPS, therefore we need a community approach.
  • Most suicidal people don't want to die, they just want the pain to stop.
  • Asking someone if they're suicidal will NOT make them more suicidal. In fact by directly asking, you may prevent someone from attempting suicide.

Responses to Suicidality

Helpful Responses
  • Show that you take the student's feelings seriously
  • Let the student know that you want to help
  • Listen attentively and empathize
  • Reassure that with help they can recover
  • Walk the student over to CAPS if it is between 8 and 5 Monday through Friday
  • If it is after five or on a weekend, call UPD at 4-2222 for help
  • Don't go it alone. Helping someone who is feeling suicidal is hard, demanding, and draining work
Less helpful responses
  • Challenge the student
  • Analyze the student's motives
  • React with shock or disdain at the student's thoughts and feelings
  • Minimize the student's distress
  • Ignore your limitations (e.g., not consulting with available resources).
  • Put yourself in a compromising position of “promising” not to consult with others.

Resources, Locations, & Contact Information

University Police Department
UPD Building (corner of 7th and San Salvador)
408-924-2222

Behavioral Intervention Team
Student Wellness Center 300B

Counseling and Psychological Services
Student Wellness Center 300B
408-924-5910

Accessible Education Center
Admin Building 110
408-924-6000

Center for Faculty Development
IRC 223
408-924-2303

Office of the Vice President for Student Affairs
Admin Building Room 212
408-924-5900

Ombudsperson
Admin Building Room 218
408-924-5995 

Student Conduct and Ethical Development
Admin Building Room 218
408-924-5985


This document was adapted from the following sources:

Disruptive Students: A Guide for SSU Faculty & Staff, Shawnee State University [pdf]

Responding to Disruptive or Threatening Student Behavior: A Guide for Faculty, California State University, Northridge [pdf]

References:

Campus Civility and the Disruption of Learning:  A Guide for Faculty and Staff, CSU Long Beach, CA [pdf]