Teaching advice: what to do when a student loses it

Quite a few people, including PZ, have posted this video of a student completely loosing it in a classroom.  From the school paper:

“Associate Professor Stephen M. Kajiura was reviewing with his evolution class in GS 120 for a midterm when FAU student Jonatha Carr interrupted him: “How does evolution kill black people?” she asked. Kajiura attempted to explain that evolution doesn’t kill anyone.…..The classmate reported that Kajiura was discussing attraction between peacocks when Carr raised her hand to ask her question about evolution. She asked it four times, and became increasingly upset each time Kajiura’s answer failed to satisfy her.

A video taken by Bustamante shows Carr ranting and threatening to kill the professor and several students.”

I’ve discussed violence before that is motivated by anti-evolution, both directed against me and others.

Honestly, I don’t think this outburst had that much to do with evolution, although it’s certainly scary that evolution seems to be the topic that triggered the student’s outburst.   What I was struck by, watching that video as someone who’s been teaching for over 25 years, is the behavior of the instructor and the other students:

  • They tried to engage in dialog with a person that is clearly in severe mental distress
  • They did not clear the classroom
  • It took way too long before anyone called 911
  • The students were more interested in filming the student’s meltdown than getting to safety

That? Honestly? Bothers me far more than what the woman was yelling.

If there is anything that needs to be discussed and post-processed about this, it’s that the area was not secured, not that she was angry about evolution.

Do you teach?
Do you have a plan for what you would do in your class if something like this happened?
Have you thought about how you might get all your students to safety in case of an emergency?
Have you recieved training–or at least instructions–about what to do with a distressed student?

If someone is this out of control, your best bet is to GTFO.  Get the distressed person in a quiet room, or make the room quiet by getting everyone else out. But don’t expect rational discourse to work.

If you are going to watch this video, do it with an eye to how you would have handled this situation as an instructor.
And learn from it.

Example University Student Risk and Review Referral Guide

12 thoughts on “Teaching advice: what to do when a student loses it

  1. If she had had a gun or a knife, this would have been a horrible tragedy. They were really, really lucky.

    (also, I am compelled as a teacher to mention that horrible powerpoint slide. But I don’t think that’s what the rant was about either.)

    I hope she gets the help she needs; recent news have her being held for evaluation, which is probably a good thing.

  2. I don’t think many people are trained in how to handle crisis situations. For some people it comes naturally but I think most people aren’t really sure of how to handle situations like this.

  3. And that is exactly why considering this, and learning from it, is important. Universities are getting better at getting information into the hands of faculty and staff about how to deal with these incidents–see the PDF I linked to that has tips on evaluating students at risk.

    The problem is that faculty have to GO to the trainings, which they don’t always do, and hear the message and realize that mental illness is a real illness, which doesn’t always happen.

  4. I’ve had minor tantrums in my classroom before and what I’ve managed to do each time is to get the focus of the student on me by using their name. Once I’ve got their focus, I just let their wrath go past me until I can get them outside of the room.
    I could hear students wondering who this girl was, and it seemed that the instructor didn’t know either. In a room that looked like it held close to 100 students, how did no one know this girl by this point in the semester?

  5. Totally missed the PDF, thanks for that. I’m applying to a crisis centre which provides excellent training so I hope that I can properly handle situations like this in the future (should they arise). I’ve been in a number of classes of 100 where the prof didn’t know my name although I eventually made acquaintance with at least a couple people within the first couple weeks. This was in the UK system whereas when I was in Canada I didn’t get to know people in most of my classes.

  6. I should add here, based on comments some have made elsewhere–
    I’m not saying that the second someone looses their temper, you clear the room. MathMike’s example above shows that sometimes you can turn things around with a quick intervention.

    What I’m saying is that if you have an unresponsive individual that is clearly out of control, don’t engage with them further, and focus on getting the rest of your students to safety. If you try to engage someone in dialog and they don’t respond or escalate, that’s time to get the rest of your students out of there so they don’t feed the situation and make it worse–or provide additional targets. When someone starts shouting about killing people, that is definately time to GTFO.

  7. Very good point Bug Girl. It was not something that I ever considered, or had to deal with thankfully, but your approach is very sensible. Thanks for sharing that. It was quite provoking.

  8. So, when instructing the class while someone is yelling, what about raising your voice Vs walking around to instruct students individually?

    Announce first, then walk around to make sure?

  9. I would’t be supprised if the teacher had been trained for this, the shock of it all is probably what caught him off guard. I do agree that people do need to be READY to act as opposed to KNOWING HOW to act though. It is sad to see such distress happen to anyone, in my, opinion. Safety is an issue here, glad you’re addressing it.

  10. This doesn’t seem to be an anti-evolution motivated outburst to me, but my experiences were all with silent walkouts or annoying questions. If it were an attempt to disrupt a class on evolution, then clearing the classroom would probably have encouraged future behaviour along the same lines.

    But when a student is disruptive, threatening, and appears potentially dangerous, then I do think the classroom should be cleared immediately and campus security called in – which requires some easy way of doing that like an emergency button or intercom. Those are also useful for medical emergencies and less drastic problems like a data projector malfunction.

    I’m not sure I’d agree with MathMike about engaging the attention of someone who appears to be loosing it and getting them out of the room. Maybe if you know the student well enough to know they are not a danger to themselves or the class, but otherwise I think that it would be best left to trained security personal, not to academics. I suspect that university administrators would tend to agree with this too.

  11. I’ve had less dramatic but similar things happen, and I’ve been in a situation where we felt there was a threat of something like this happening based on information previously received.

    These days, at most institutions, there is a procedure and a system. For the last few years that I taught at UMN I kept my cell phone on vibrate, because I was part of a program where we would get warnings via text message of information we had to pass on to students (bomb threats, fires, tornadoes mostly) . That also kept the phone ready to call 911. If teaching with a staff, one or two staff members (TA’s) would be asked to have their phones. Then, when something strange happens, one unhesitatingly calls the coppers. In a larger campus setting, one must know which cops to call and if the 911 system properly handles calls within the campus. At UMN, in Minneapolis, the 911 system is said to work properly but I believe it is inconsistent. A large portion of the campus was shut down two years ago because of a minor chemical spill; someone called 911 and the city police and sheriff dept. swung into action with the fire dept and shut down and evacuated three research building which together must have been one of the larges single exodi of researchers from one spot ever (the three largest science-hives at this very large campus). Had the U police been called proper procedure would have led to the evacuation of two or three labs and the immediate cleanup of the mess. (I think what actually hapened included the evacuation of the people who would have cleaned it up.) Generally, the campus police will call in other police agencies (like if there is a shooting) but they are the ones with the geo-knowledge, and most importantly, the keys, to get around.

    In academia, however, there are two problems: Hubris and cynicism. The latter means that people either don’t care to be ready for untoward events, or feel that preparation merely actuates the police state (a valid concern). The former tells faculty members that since they have PhD’s and maybe even tenure, they threrefore are smart enough to handle any eventuality without any kind of training or information. This is probably the number one cause of University HR problems.

    Anyway, when I first saw this video, someone had sent it to me and mentioned that it was a High School class, so at first I was perplexed that the instructor in the front of the room was clueless. HS teachers deal with fights and outbursts enough that this event would have been better handled, even though it was an extreme one. I showed it to Amanda and she immediately corrected me.

    Oh, and I blame the Discovery Institute for making the connection between Darwin and Racism.

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