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Responding to Dangerous Students

Introduction

Being confronted by a student who appears dangerous and potentially violent is one of the most stressful and anxiety-provoking experiences faced by JMU faculty and staff members. Because these interactions are so far removed from those that they typically have with students, faculty and staff understandably feel confused and unprepared to deal with these situations. This web site has been developed to provide JMU faculty and staff with a framework from which to identify students with a significant potential for dangerous behavior and to take actions that will protect both them and the campus community.

How Common Are Violent Crimes on Campus?

According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, the Census Bureau, and the FBI, the murder rate on college campuses is nearly twenty times lower than the national rate. A 2005 Department of Justice study found that, with the exception of sexual assault, the average annual rates for all violent crimes measured were lower for students than same-aged peers who were not attending college. More specific to university faculty and staff, the most recent (2001) Bureau of Justice Statistics report indicated that, among all the occupational groups examined, college faculty had the lowest violent crime victimization rate (over thirty times less than junior high teachers and forty times less than mental health professionals). In summary, the college campus seems to be a relatively safe and protected environment.

Common Characteristics of Potentially Violent Students

Although JMU faculty and staff are not expected to formally assess the potential dangerousness of students, it is helpful to have some level of awareness of factors that might serve to elevate the risk of violence. While there exists no definitive "profile" with which to predict violent behavior, among the characteristics commonly found in the perpetrators of violence are:

  • A social history that includes being an outsider and/or having suffered significant rejections, if not torment, from his/her peer group. These experiences often lead to a self-concept of being a victim/martyr and feelings of contempt for those seen as oppressors.
  • Evidence of past violent behavior that was either reactive (i.e., impulsive, without premeditation) or instrumental (i.e., premeditated to achieve a certain goal).
  • A history of encounters with police or with other authorities (e.g., JMU's Office of Student Accountability & Restorative Practices (OSARP)) related to threatening or violent behaviors.
  • A record of substance abuse, especially when substance use leads to antagonistic, violent, and/or reckless behavior.
  • A history of stalking, harassment, and/or surveillance of other individuals.
  • Disturbingly violent content in academic work (e.g., compositions, artwork).
  • An identification with or praise for other perpetrators of violence (e.g., Columbine, Virginia Tech).
  • A preference for Web sites, movies, music lyrics, and other media with violent themes and degrading subject matter.
  • A fascination with weapons, especially those designed and most often used to kill people (e.g., handguns, automatic weapons, garrotes).
  • A history of referrals or commitments to mental health facilities for aggressive, violent, and/or destructive behavior. It is important to point out, however, that the vast majority of individuals with mental health problems are not violent and that the vast majority of people who are violent do not suffer from mental illnesses.
  • A felt justification for using violence ("an eye for an eye", righteous indignation) and alteration of perceptions to develop this justification (e.g., "You didn't just bump into me, you meant to hit me.").
  • A belief that the person can successfully deliver means of violence. People who have successfully used violence in the past have a higher appraisal of their ability to effectively use violence again.
  • A perception that violence moves the person toward, not away from, some desired outcome. Consequences are seen as irrelevant (e.g., "I've got nothing to lose") or favorable (e.g., a person who wants attention).
  • A belief that there are no alternatives to violence to achieve his/her goals.

It is critically important to note that the above risk factors have been provided to inform, not replace, your intuition about the dangerousness of a student. In fact, an intuitive fear or apprehension that a student may be potentially violent (whether or not you or others can articulate reasons for this feeling) may be the most important reason for you to take the threat seriously and to follow the suggestions outlined below.

An Ounce of Prevention...

If you find yourself in a situation in which you or other faculty, staff, or students have an intuitive fear of a student and/or in which a student displays the risk factors highlighted above, you should:

  • Notify your department chair or supervisor of the situation, provide pertinent information to this individual, and express your concerns and desire for help in order to effectively address the matter.
  • Contact other campus resources who will help you to further assess the situation and, if necessary, to take steps to reduce the chances of violent behavior. These resources include:
    • Dean of Students  (Taylor Hall, 540-568-6468):  The Dean of Students chairs the JMU committee that works to assess the potential risk of violence posed by a member of the campus community.
    • Counseling & Student Development Center (Varner House, 540-568-6552). The Counseling Center's clinicians can aid in the development of a more comprehensive understanding of the student's behavior and in the design of effective intervention strategies.
    • Office of Student Accountability and Restorative Practices (Student Success Center 2122, 540-568-6218). OSARP administers the policies found in the Student Handbook, some of which pertain to threatening and violent behavior.
    • Office of Public Safety (Anthony Seeger Hall, 540-568-6913, 540-568-6911 in an emergency). Public Safety is the primary source of immediate support when a student engages in threats or actions that jeopardize the safety of an individual(s).

The four departments listed above work collaboratively as members of a threat assessment team to address the issue of potentially violent behavior on the JMU campus. Thus, do not be concerned about calling the "right" department; simply contact one of the departments and a representative will either assist you or direct you to a more appropriate resource. Sharing information with appropriate campus departments helps University officials to "connect the dots" and enhance the safety of the JMU community.

When Violence Seems Imminent...

If you sense that a situation is escalating and that a student may pose a physical threat to you or others, important considerations include:

  • If the event occurs during class, immediately dismiss the class. Example: "Right now, I need to help this student, so let's call it quits until next time."
  • Attempt to remain calm so as to not escalate the student's fear or anger. Becoming defensive or verbally or physically threatening the student are unhelpful responses that will escalate an already volatile situation.
  • Maintain a safe distance, keep eye contact, and do not turn your back to the student. Try to position yourself near the door with a barrier (e.g., furniture, podium) between you and the student.
  • Do not embarrass the student. Protect his/her dignity by behaving with courtesy, respect, and understanding. You may feel that he/she is self-defeating and will always be involved in trouble, but there is nothing to be gained from letting these messages surface.
  • Unless you are under physical attack, do not touch the student or the student's belongings.  Initiating physical touch may be interpreted by an agitated student as an assault.
  • Acknowledge the student's anger or fears and attempt to identify the emotion under the behavior. Examples: "I hear how angry you are."  "You sound very frustrated."
  • Set limits and use a calm, non-confrontational approach to defuse the situation.  Example:  "I need you to please take a step back and to lower your voice.  We can't resolve your problem if you continue to threaten me."
  • If the student makes threats:
    • Provide a way for him/her to save face. Let the student know that he/she has not embarked on a course from which he/she cannot retreat. Example: "We all say things we don't mean when we're upset; I've done it myself. I know you'll feel differently tomorrow." This doesn't mean that you will not take action and inform the police and other relevant parties about what the student has said, but the primary focus needs to be on preventing the situation from escalating in the moment.
    • Do not initially mention disciplinary action or police intervention.  Instead, work to refocus the student's attention away from the future consequences of her/his behavior. Example:  "You've raised some important issues.  I need to consult with my supervisor to see what we can do."
  • If the preceding suggestions do not defuse the situation and you continue to feel threatened by the student, call the Office of Public Safety (540-568-6911) or instruct someone else to do so.
  • Following the incident, alert your department chair or supervisor about the situation. Contact the Dean of Students for support and guidance.

When Prevention Fails and Violence Occurs...

  • If it is possible to do so safely, try to escape the area quickly and quietly.
  • If attempting to escape, do not carry phones or other objects in your hands. As you move through open areas keep your hands elevated with open palms visible, especially if encountering law enforcement officers responding to the situation. Follow all the instructions officers may give you.
  • If you cannot safely exit the area, seek shelter in a room where the doors can be locked or barricaded securely.
  • Close and lock windows, lower blinds, remain out of sight, and turn off lights.
  • Once secure inside, take cover behind concrete walls, thick desks, filing cabinets, and away from windows and doors.
  • Remain quiet and turn off cell phone ringers.
  • Only one person should call police (568-6911) and tell them your location, the location of the violent person, and the condition of others with you. Follow the instructions of the police. If you cannot speak, leave the line open so the dispatcher can hear what is going on.
  • Assist others if they are injured.
  • Do not open the door or respond to any unfamiliar voice commands until you can be sure that they are coming from a police officer or a recognized campus official coming to help you.

The following is Run. Hide. Fight.© a video about surviving an active shooter situation.