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UNR Faculty Discuss How to Handle Disruptions in Classrooms


Image: UNR.

Faculty at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) heard from administrators and colleagues Tuesday about how to handle disruptive students in the classroom as it relates to current events facing the nation.

Managing challenging discussions, maintaining a sense of order, and keeping on topic were among things addressed as the first day of the fall semester looms.

The “Unite the Right” white nationalist march that UNR student Peter Cvjetanovic attended earlier this month in Charlottesville, Va. was brought up, although nobody mentioned him by name.

However, much of the discussion circled around scenarios that’ve occurred on campus in the past involving other students and how best they should be handled. For instance:

  • White students have come into a tutoring center and said they didn’t want someone from another race helping them.
  • Male students have been belligerent toward female professors, judging them on their gender instead of their credentials.
  • Students have muttered slurs under their breath at other students in class. Sometimes professors hear the phrases, but other times they can’t make out the words.
Mary Dugan
Mary Dugan. Photo: UNR

“The goal is to create an environment where all students can thrive and learn,” said Mary Dugan, UNR general counsel.

Students look to professors to make the environment comfortable. If a student is belittled by another, it’s the professor’s job to educate the offender but the professor can’t discipline them, Dugan said.

“Use it as an educational moment, then report it later,” Dugan said. “Discipline occurs through other processes.”

Such incidents can be reported to UNR’s Title IX office, Student Intervention Team, or police department, Dugan said. Title IX focuses on one’s right to an education on basis of merit without fear of discrimination, the intervention team helps distressed and disruptive students, and police can assess threats. Not all complaints result in discrimination claims.

In extreme circumstances, a professor can ask a disruptive student to leave the classroom; but should require that student meet with them before the next class convenes.

Stacy Burton, vice provost of faculty affairs, suggested professors who feel threatened should ask a department chair or colleague to sit in on a meeting with a questionable student. Meeting in a public place might also be an option. In extreme cases, faculty can request a plainclothes or uniformed police officer wait nearby.

Stacy Burton
Stacy Burton. Photo: UNR

Burton said candor and integrity are vital—as is setting one’s authority early in the semester.

When conducting difficult discussions, Burton suggested requiring opinions from students be supported by facts. Interrogate one’s language, not the individual, she said.

“However skilled you are, you need to handle disruption in a professional manner,” Burton said.

For staff members who deal with students only wanting to be helped by Caucasians, they need to let them know that’s not how things work and that they’ll be seen by who’s available. If the student remains persistent, Burton said they have the option of vacating the area.

Robert Gutierrez-Perez, assistant professor of communication studies, said it’s important to listen to what someone is saying instead of trying to figure out how to respond.

Also, sometimes people will use the excuse they’re playing “devil’s advocate” if they don’t have an argument to back their opinion up, Gutierrez-Perez said.

“Ask yourself if you’re opening up a dialogue or switching to someone else’s agenda,” Gutierrez-Perez said.

The panel was asked whether engaging in dialogue might encourage students with outrageous ideas to become more vocal.

“Be clear on what the topic of discussion is and what it’s not,” Burton said.

In the event a faculty member is teaching in a large lecture hall and might not hear everything being said amongst students, they need to let their class know they’re available to discuss any concerns, Burton said. Any student who feels threatened will be uncomfortable; and as a result, won’t be able to learn, she said.

Dugan said threats of violence aren’t protected under free speech and encouraged faculty and staff to report anything suspicious, even if the suspect isn’t known. For example, offensive graffiti.

“When in doubt, report,” Dugan said. “Then you haven’t left anything undone.”

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Carla O'Day
Carla O'Day
Carla has an undergraduate degree in journalism and more than 10 years experience as a daily newspaper reporter. She grew up in Jacksonville, Fla., moved to the Reno area in 2002 and wrote for the Reno Gazette-Journal for 8 years, covering a variety of topics. Prior to that, she covered local government in Fort Pierce, Fla.




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