Many college professors often write or ask me how to cope or deal with students with emotional problems who might be a danger to them or someone they know. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to predicting violence; it is an inexact science with a high level of false positives
, yet because of the seriousness of what can happen if we miss a potentially violent person, it is important for us to at least have a lay person's ability to be aware of the warning signs if they are present. This does not mean that we need to round up students who seem odd---many of us are odd but not a threat. How do you tell the difference? Following is the type of question I get from teachers or professors that may help you determine if odd behavior is a problem or not:
"I am a professor at a college and am afraid of one of my students. He seems angry and has even gone as far as to make threats. I have been trying to placate him by being nice but his behavior is getting worse since failing my course, despite some extra points I gave him. What are the warning signs I should look for and what do I do?"
According to Gavin DeBecker (1997, source is below), the warning signs of violent students include but are not limited to 1) a tendency to use threats, intimidation, manipulations, or escalations; 2) adverse reaction to criticism; 3) rigid ideas and resistant to change; 4) sullen, angry, or depressed appearance; 5) refusal to accept responsiblity for actions; 6) paranoid thoughts that others are "out to get" him or her; 7) tendency to always be involved in some grievance, crusade or mission; 8) odd behavior that produces uneasiness and apprehension in other people 9) jokes about having weapons or praise for other perpetrators of violence; and 10) expresssions of dispair or hopelessness, such as, "What's the use? Nothing changes anyway."
The first step in preventing violence before it starts is to quit being Mr. or Ms. Nice Guy--it doesn't work. Violent people often attack the very people who are helping them. Why? Because you are there and not giving them all of the help they often feel entitled to have. For example, Peter Odighizuwa shot and killed his dean at the Appalachian School of Law
after the dean went out of his way to assist him in getting a car, scholarship and back in the law school after doing poorly. It is not a kindness to keep bending your grading scale by giving a few points to a marginal student. Students with a sense of entitlement will only exploit your generous nature if you give in time and time again. Be alert to manipulation from students in the form of flattery. "You are the only professor who cares" or "I don't know what I would do if I didn't have you to talk to" are examples of manipulative behavior. Never become a student's counselor. Observe teacher/student boundaries at all times. Refer the student to the student mental health clinc if he or she seems to be chronically angry or stressed where services are generally free or included in the student activities fee. While records of counseling sessions are confidential, the counselor of a troubled student can be asked to report to school officials whether the student is attending sessions as scheduled.
Never permit verbal abuse from a student, in the classroom or anywhere else. Tell the student to leave the class if they make rude inflammatory remarks. Many faculty now include civility clauses in their course syllabi, setting expectations at the beginning of the semester for classroom decorum.
Don't count on your school to help you--especially if you do not have tenure--your adjunct contract may just not be renewed. One law professor told me that his school didn't care if students made threats because "if they shot a professor, the administration could just hire someone else cheaper." Okay, maybe this is a little cynical but some colleges take little or no action against threats of violence. Apparently, it is more important to put on a PC air of superiority than to protect their professors and students. For example, I wrote a paper along with some colleagues for law professors on how to deal with angry or violent students. We submitted it to the Journal of Legal Education
at Georgetown who turned it down--stating that we "must be working with John Ashcroft" given the suggestions we made. Our outrageous suggestions? Have a designated person assigned in the school to handle reports of inappropriate behavior. Do remember, however, that your school is supposed to provide you with a safe environment. The Appalachian Law School recently settled their case for one million dollars
for failure to warn students and faculty about Peter Odighizuwa's dangerous behavior. You are well within your rights to ask for stepped up security or discipline for the student etc.
I have some suggestions for books for those of you who want more information on how to protect yourself from violence. The first is The Gift of Fear.
It is a bit too PC for my taste at times but the author, Gavin De Becker, gives some good tips and explanations for how to avoid violence. In addition, it is an interesting and easy read. The second book is J. Reid Meloy's Violence Risk and Threat Assessment: A Practical Guide for Mental Health and Criminal Justice Professionals (Practical Guide Series (San Diego, Calif.).
Meloy presents some excellent descriptions of how to assess and understand those who are potentially violent. Also check out his book, The Psychology of Stalking,
if you want to understand more about the stalker in your life.