The Act of Violence

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How to Approach Conflict in the Classroom

Managing problematic student behaviors in the age of guns on campus

Jared Loughner was both a high school and a college dropout.  He sits in a federal prison for the January 8, 2011 shooting of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords in Tucson, AZ, where he also killed six people, including a federal judge, one of Giffords’ campaign aides, and a nine-year-old girl.  He wounded 13 others and was sentenced to life without parole.  He was diagnosed in prison as a paranoid schizophrenic, something his friends and family certainly saw in his irrational behaviors in the two years leading up to his mass murder event. 

Loughner’s time at Pima Community College in Tucson was not pleasant, either for him, his classmates, his professors, or the college police.  His behavior in class was confrontational, erratic, and disruptive, to the point that other students were afraid of him.  Speaking to Scott Pelley on a “60 Minutes” segment that ran just after the Tucson shootings, titled “Descent into Madness,” Linda Sorensen, who had an algebra class with Loughner said, “I sat near the door, because I thought he might come into class with a gun.”  One of Loughner’s professors, Ben McGahee, told USA Today two days after the shooting, he looked at Loughner and thought, “Is he going to bring a weapon to class?”  

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After Loughner posted a rambling, nonsensical video he took while walking around the Pima campus, the college police sent four officers to his home to tell him he was suspended until he sought mental health counseling.  He never returned to the college and enacted his mass murder plan instead.

The Texas House just passed their version of a bill that will allow students to bring firearms on to college campuses. The Texas Senate is taking up the issue and will vote soon.  If the statue becomes law, colleges and universities in Texas can choose to opt out and continue to ban firearms, but with Texas being Texas, you can suppose that we will see more firearms on campuses around the state.

The purpose of these laws, which have made their ways through various state legislatures in the aftermath of K-12 and college campus shootings is, in theory, to provide an extra level of protection to students who are confronted with an armed shooter on campus or in their classrooms.  The idea, often espoused by pro-gun groups populated with college students, is that should an armed perpetrator start firing, one or more nearby similarly-armed students could stop the threat.  Supporters of more guns on campus say that these events are often over very quickly, with many dead or wounded, who were unable to be properly protected by either campus police or local law enforcement.  Having their guns at the ready, they say, not only protects them and others, but sends a deterrent message to potential shooters as well.   

As with most things in life, there is a downside to all this tough talk about stopping active shooters and saving lives.  What about those students, like Jared Loughner, who manage to get their hands on a gun and carry it on campus, even though they are mentally ill?  And what happens when an angry and armed student is sitting in an uncomfortable meeting with a professor, getting ready to hear some bad news about grades or expulsion?  How does that knowledge change the professor’s answers, demeanor, and level of fear during that conversation?  

And how should college professors best deal with returning military veterans, some of whom have diagnosed or undiagnosed traumatic brain injuries and/or PTSD?  These vets may carry guns with them, whether it’s allowed or not, legal or not, just because they still feel hypervigilant and the strong need to protect themselves, like they did in the combat environment. 

I recently visited a college system in Houston, Texas, where the subject of students with guns, in particular, and classroom behavior management in general, were big topics amongst the professors and administrators.  We brainstormed the following collection of best practices for instructors, to help them better manage classroom behaviors and minimize potential outbursts: 

Watch your tone, body language, and use of careful eye contact.  (Be careful of condescension and challenging eye contact with students.)

Use the word “feedback” instead of the word “criticism.”  (The word “criticism” can trigger defensiveness in students.  Feedback is a more semantically-positive word.) 

Don’t argue in front of the students.  (Unless it is a serious safety issues, agree to put the conflict aside until after class is over.)

Have them establish their own Buddy Systems to create both peer support and peer pressure.  (This process helps them when they have to miss class, to get the notes from a colleague.  It also teaches them to work in teams.)

Use the phrase, “You can’t do that if you want to stay here.”  (This gives the student a face-saving way out, by letting him or her make a choice to comply or leave.) 

Put the rules of classroom conduct in the syllabus and enforce them early.  (Violations of the rules must be followed by consequences.  No consequences equals the potential for chaos.) 

Meet troubled students outside of class; don’t call them out in front of their peers.  (Private conversations work best.)

Don’t use red pens when grading papers.  (This one is like waving the proverbial red cape in front of the angry bull; it just causes visceral and emotional reactions among students.) 

The student culture can be difficult to manage at any age.  Students today have little or no reluctance about challenging their teachers, at every level from K-12 to graduate school.  Plenty of veteran teachers say they miss the old days, where students were more respectful of teachers.  Some instructors can mange their classrooms with few problems or confrontations; others are not so skilled.  In this era of more guns coming on campus and more classroom outbursts, it makes sense to try every technique to keep the classroom safe.

Dr. Steve Albrecht, PHR, CPP, BCC, is a San Diego-based speaker, author, and trainer.  He is board certified in HR, security, and coaching.  He focuses on high-risk employee issues, threat assessment, and school and workplace violence prevention.  In 1994, he co-wrote Ticking Bombs, one of the first business books on workplace violence.  He holds a doctorate in Business Administration (DBA); an M.A. in Security Management; a B.S. in Psychology; and a B.A. in English.  He worked for the San Diego Police Department for 15 years and has written 16 books on business, HR, and criminal justice subjects.  He can be reached at drsteve@drstevealbrecht.com or on Twitter @DrSteveAlbrecht

 

Steve Albrecht, D.B.A., holds degrees in English and Psychology, and a doctorate in Business Administration. He is a former police officer and domestic violence investigator with the San Diego Police. more...

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