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Dealing with Conflicts

Conflicts Outside the Classroom: Harassment and Assault

At times, conflicts that occur outside the classroom may enter into it as well. A student may have an emotional reaction when course material- even on a seemingly innocuous topic- touches on a sensitive subject or reminds the student of past traumatic experiences, such as sexual assault, relationship violence, harassment, or violence borne out of racism, homophobia, or prejudice against ethnic or religious groups. Even when such conflicts or their aftermath are not played out in your course, they can indirectly affect student performance by impeding students’ ability to learn and to thrive at the university. Luckily, many of the skills faculty and teaching assistants develop to gauge student reactions in the classroom (i.e., to identify who wishes to speak, who is bored, who is unprepared, etc.) can help you be sensitive to student discomfort or distress over course material or during personal interactions. The best way to respond in these situations is to address the student’s unease or the miscommunication immediately, whether just after class, over email, by phone, or in person. Although this discussion should take place privately, be sure to schedule it for a location where the student will feel comfortable and not isolated.

Alternatively, a student who has experienced significant trauma, whether in the past or more recently, may seek you out for advice or support. Certain teachers, including female TAs and faculty, TAs in general, and younger faculty, may be more likely to have a student confide in them, because they are closer in age to their students, because they often teach small classes of primarily first- and second-year students, or because they interact more closely with their students. In particular, students who have experienced sexual assault sometimes find they are not comfortable confiding in their friends or their parents and may talk about their experience with a teacher. Although you are probably not a licensed counselor, you can have a significant impact as a listener or referral source. The following are a few suggestions for handling such situations:

Be aware of students exhibiting dramatic changes in behavior or suddenly withdrawing physically and psychologically from the class. A good student may suddenly start skipping class erratically, particularly after a subject like rape or racial violence has been discussed or may suddenly not turn in work on time or at all. If a student exhibits such behavior and then writes about a similar subject for an assignment, he/she may be inviting a response.

If you suspect a student may be experiencing academic difficulties for non-academic reasons, ask the student to speak to you privately. Let the student know you do not intend the conference to be punitive. You can speak to the student briefly at the end of class and ask to make an appointment, or you can write a note on the end of a paper or test (“I would like to discuss this paper with you. Can you come by my office?”). If the student has essentially dropped out of the class, you may phone the student directly or phone his/her dean. For students in the College of Arts and Sciences, call 924-3351 to speak with a student’s Association Dean; for students in other schools, call the office of the Academic Dean.

Express your willingness to listen non-judgmentally and to assist any way you can.

Sympathize with the student, but do not counsel the student yourself. Rather than taking on the role of counselor, listen to the student without suggesting explanations or excuses, and refer the student to Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS, 924-5556). During the conference, you might say, “I’m sorry that happened.” or “I’m glad you trusted me enough to talk to me.” Above all, validate the student’s experience and feelings.

Refer the student to the appropriate University resources. You might say, “I am not an expert on this, but let me connect you with someone/an organization who can help you.”

1. If the student has been harassed, suggest that he or she contact the Office of Equal Opportunity Programs (EOP). Stress that the EOP does much more than help students who wish to file formal complaints, including referring the student to the Judiciary Committee in certain cases of student-to-student harassment, sitting down informally with the parties involved, and writing (or helping the student write) a letter to the harasser to address the issue.

2. If the student feels more comfortable dealing with another office first, you can suggest he/she contact any of the following:
For sexual harassment, specifically, contact the Women’s Center (982-2361) or the Sexual Assault Education Office (982-2774). The Women’s Center can help students explore options for responding to harassment and aid in the referral process, including role-playing a conversation the student would like to have with the harasser, helping write to the harasser, exploring options of help from chairs or deans, and supporting the student in contacting the EOP.
For any form of discriminatory harassment, contact the staff at the Office of the Dean of Students (924-7133), Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS, 924-5556), or the Office of African American Affairs (924- 7923).

3. In cases of sexual assault, the two most important resources for the student to contact are the SARA hotline (977-RAPE, available at all hours) and the Sexual Assault Education Office (982-2774).

Determine whether or not immediate action needs to be taken, but do not suggest specific legal procedures.Does the student feel in danger? Is medical attention necessary? Avoid making decisions even if the student seems confused. Instead, ask what he or she would like to have done.

Work with the student on fulfilling the academic requirements of your course. It is important that the student make decisions to gain control of his/her life, though that might mean he or she decides to drop your course. Even if the student never attends your class again after your conference, you have fulfilled your responsibility by taking positive actions, and you have taken an important step by breaking through the silence that often surrounds students in such situations.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

The Office of Equal Opportunity Programs (EOP) is responsible for enforcing U.Va.’s nondiscrimination policy, including the University’s policy on discriminatory harassment. In short, harassment is defined as any conduct directed against a person “because of his or her age, color, disability, sex (including pregnancy), national or ethnic origin, political affiliation, race, religion, sexual orientation, veteran status, or participation in a University, state, or federal discrimination investigation” which “unreasonably interferes with the person’s work or academic performance or participation in University activities, or creates a working or learning environment that a reasonable person would find threatening or intimidating.” For a more complete description of the University of Virginia Policy on Discriminatory Harassment consult the EOP website (http://www.virginia.edu/ eop/policies.html).

For more detailed information and specific university guidelines regarding sexual harassment and assault, consult the EOP website or the Sexual Assault Education Office.