Responding to Disturbing Content in Students' Work

Responding to Disturbing Statements

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As a faculty member or teaching assistant, you may experience a situation where a student exhibits disturbing content in their comments or assignments. This can often include self-disclosure about abuse/trauma; concerning email messages; statements of being a threat to themselves or others; or work that appears to be impacted by past trauma or violence. The student may or may not also exhibit disruptive classroom behavior.

Common red flags include:

  • The organization of written material is incoherent and difficult to follow. Often the written content moves from item to item in an associative manner rather than a linear and logical fashion
  • There may be a preponderance of dark, negative or jarring themes and images, such as sexual themes, violence and death
  • Frequent use of profanity within a violent context
  • The work is a dramatic departure from the student's typical demeanor or behavior

When you come across this type of written content, you may wonder:

  • How do I address the student's work from an academic standpoint?
  • Should a student be required to see a counselor?
  • Should anything be done at all?
  • Is the student just being artistic?

How to Respond

The worst response is no response at all. You do not need to respond immediately to email, notes or calls from a student. If possible, wait to respond to the student after consulting with Counseling and Psychological Services and your department chair. Then, when the appropriate opportunity presents itself, express your concern about the work’s content to the student. You might suggest that you would like to delay grading the assignment until you and the student can discuss things further. Refrain from making promises, commitments or personal comments in your response to the student.

Keep copies of all communication with the student. Factual feedback to the student will depend on having an accurate record of agreements, comments, emails, etc.

Consult Us

If you are facing a situation involving disturbing comments or statements, contact us by calling 402.472.5000 and ask for a faculty consultation. The director or case manager at Counseling and Psychological Services will either take your call immediately or will call you back as soon as possible. If you believe it may be an emergency situation, let the phone operator know.

In some cases, we may need additional information about the student or have her/him come to Counseling and Psychological Services for a risk assessment. In these cases, the necessary steps will be taken to arrange this. In accordance with the requirements of confidentiality, it will not be possible for Counseling and Psychological Services to reveal any information regarding the student, even if the student is being seen. Whenever appropriate, we will work closely and consult with the vice chancellor for Student Affairs and University Police.

Frequently, consultations and/or a risk assessments have revealed the existence of an emotional concern. At other times, however, we have found that some students were unaware that their behavior had created a problem for others or that they were unintentionally violating cultural or social norms. Irrespective of the student's understanding of the impact of their work on others, it is important and appropriate to consult and/or refer so that we can intervene when necessary.