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How to stay safe if conversations become volatile

Instructors lead students through many controversial topics in their classes. Discussions often grow passionate, even heated, as students work through polarizing ideas and learn to express themselves rationally. Very rarely do classroom discussions turn violent. Even so, it’s important to keep in mind warning signs of potential violence and to think through how you, as an instructor, would respond if a dangerous situation arose in a classroom or during office hours.

What follows is advice from law enforcement and other experts on violent behavior. It is not meant as a comprehensive guide to classroom safety. Rather, it provides basic advice on what to watch for and how to approach volatile conversations. We suggest visiting our page on inclusive teaching for additional advice on how to handle difficult conversations.

Lee Warren’s article, Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom, provides especially good advice on working with students in those situations and on preparing yourself as an instructor.

Warning signs of violent behavior

In its guide Workplace Violence, the Federal Bureau of Investigation reminds readers that violent behavior in the workplace is rare. To help prevent such behavior, it offers several tips for employers and employees. One of those tips seems especially meaningful in a university setting: “Fostering a climate of respect among workers and between employees and management.”

For instructors, that means creating a respectful classroom environment where students feel part of a learning community and feel that they can express their thoughts and ideas in meaningful conversations.

Even in a respectful environment, though, troublesome behavior can rise. The FBI suggests watching for precursors to violent behavior as a means for preventing violence in the workplace. These are some of the warning signs:

  • Increasing belligerence
  • Ominous, specific threats
  • Hypersensitivity to criticism
  • Preoccupation with violent themes
  • Interest in recently publicized violent events
  • Outbursts of anger
  • Extreme disorganization
  • Noticeable changes in behavior
  • Homicidal or suicidal comments or threats

A threat to harm someone, either verbal or nonverbal, often precedes an act of violence, the FBI says. It notes, though, that most threats do not lead to violence. It states: “Dealing with threats and/or threatening behavior – detecting them, evaluating them, and finding a way to address them – may be the most important key to preventing violence” (p. 23).

If a conversation turns too heated

It’s up to you, as an instructor, to help students work through conversations about difficult topics so they can learn from them. If a conversation in class or in your office becomes so angry that it feels threatening or dangerous, you have several options:

Remain as calm as possible. This is difficult, but if you remain calm, others around you are more likely to remain calm.

Don’t touch the person or respond in a threatening way. Doing so, even in a sympathetic way, could heighten a person’s anger.

Stop the conversation. Politely suggest that you resume the conversation another time when everyone is calmer.

Step out of the room. This will allow you to gather your thoughts. If the situation seems dangerous, call 911 or signal to a colleague to call.  

Ask the agitated person to leave. Be polite but firm. If that doesn’t work, consider canceling class or asking students to leave the room for a few minutes. If things seem too volatile, call 911 or ask someone else to call.

References

Blevins, R., and Cunningham, D. (2017). Classroom safety presentation, Center for Teaching Excellence, University of Kansas.

Rugala, E., and Isaacs, A. (2002).Workplace Violence.  Critical Incident Response Group, FBI Academy. Accessed via www.fbi.gov/file-repository/stats-services-publications-workplace-violence-workplace-violence/view

Warren, L. (n.d.). Managing Hot Moments in the Classroom, Derek Bok Center, Harvard University. Accessed via https://bokcenter.harvard.edu/managing-hot-moments-classroom


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