This post continues the ProfHacker series on disruptive student behavior in the classroom (see our first post on ways to handle students who are engaging in disruptive, off-topic conversations). In this series, we present a scenario and offer a few suggestions from ProfHacker readers about how they handle similar situations. Of course, ways of handling these scenarios will depend upon the discipline, the class size, and the culture of an institution, and we will try to include as many of these variables as we can. What we are discussing here are behaviors that–no matter the discipline or the institutional culture–impede learning for other students. This scenario comes directly from one of our readers who asked us how we’d handle something she encountered for the first time just this semester.
SCENARIO: Before class begins, Lethargic Larry/Laura walks by, and you notice a rather pungent, unusual smell. You realize that the smell comes from alcohol or marijuana. Laura/Larry meanders to a seat in the back and sits quietly, placing the correct book and notebook on the desk. He/she looks just as attentive as other students in the class, which is not saying too much. A couple of students who sit near Larry/Laura notice the smell, too, and start giggling. One whispers something to another student sitting away from Laura/Larry, who also lets out a snicker. It stops there, but these students keep glancing at Larry/Laura, who sits there not taking notes and not participating (which is not unusual for many students in the room).
RESPONSE: Now what? What do you do?
EXTENDED SCENARIO: Lethargic Laura/Larry shows up for the fourth time smelling like marijuana or alcohol. Students who sit near him or her roll their eyes and move away as Larry/Laura grabs the same desk in the back. A couple cough loudly while a couple more hold their noses and look at each other.
RESPONSE: Now what? Do these new details change your response?
- Respondent #1 (female, instructor, humanities and law): I would not do anything in the first scenario. Students have bad days. They experiment and/or use substances, some of which are illegal. However, without concrete proof, there is not much that can be done. So long as the student is not disruptive or falling asleep in class, I would let the incident slide. If the behavior continues, as the extended scenario suggests, then there are some issues at play. From a legal standpoint, an instructor cannot accuse a student of criminal activity without concrete proof that a crime has been committed. The student is an adult and has constitutional rights. On the other hand, the fact that such behavior is disruptive to the other students cannot be ignored. The instructor has a duty to make the learning environment safe and free from unnecessary distraction. I teach at a career college where there are few guidelines in place to deal with these particular issues. I do employ a “Student-Professor Privilege” policy, where students can come to me and discuss any issue. However, if it is a situation in which a student may harm himself/herself or harm another person, I will report him/her to the proper individual who is charged with handling these types of situations. Also, I keep a list of agencies that I can give to my students should they need assistance. Most instructors may not do this, but given my legal background, I have such information at my disposal. I would have a private conversation with Larry/Laura. I would not accuse him/her of anything, I would explain to him/her that I have concerns about his/her performance and is there anything he/she wishes to discuss with me. I would try to persuade him/her to meet with those on campus charged with dealing with that type of situation and/or provide information that I have at my disposal. Also, I would tell them that if such behavior continues, I would ultimately have to report him/her to the person charged with handling student disciplinary concerns. Most importantly, I would let the student know that I am there for him/her.
- Respondent #2 (male, tenured administrator, humanities): I have a basic philosophy in my classes that everyone is allowed to have a bad day, so I rarely get annoyed the first or maybe even the second time a student does something disruptive, though I might stop the disruption depending on what it is. In this case, I would let the student sit there quietly for the day. Hopefully, once we get into the rhythm of the class, even the students who noticed the smell would forget about it. I do a lot of small-group work in my classes, and I would check to make sure the Laura/Larry was at least joining the group physically if not mentally. If so, I could probably let this one off day go. If it continues, however, I would have to do something. Luckily, I have clear options at my school. Actually, I have two. There’s one program where any first-year student can go for support, and any faculty member of first-year students can contact the program’s director and alert him to any issue related to any first-year student. The second option is the university’s counseling office, which is staffed with experts who can handle substance abuse issues. I know that in cases like this (as well as anything related to depression, suicide, anxiety, and the like), I can contact the director of this office and give her the student’s name. She is the university expert on the legal and ethical issues related to cases like this, and she has a network of support staff who can work with students who need such attention. She also happens to work directly with the program established for first-year students. Some have told me that this feels like “passing the buck,” but it’s not. These are the experts who know exactly what to do in cases like this, cases for which faculty are not trained. As an administrator, I make sure the adjunct faculty who teach for me know about both of these people, though they also know they can come to me, and I’ll make the relevant contacts. Any administrator should know the names of these contacts on her or his campus so that students and faculty can get help fast.
- Respondent #3 (male, adjunct, humanities): In England, journalists have long referred to members of the Commons or the Lords as “exhausted” if they appear to be drunk during an address or proceedings–the euphemism is widely understood but saves face and trouble on both sides. In a classroom, the aftereffects of drug use are hard to mistake and make for disruption and distraction for the instructor and the other students alike (I’m afraid that I think that the erring student’s learning has gone out the window already). I like the idea of approaching the chemically-altered student and saying, “You seem to me to be *very tired*. I think you should go back to your dorm and get the rest you so obviously need.” You may get a little resistance (after all, the student may well feel *fantastic*), but it’s worthwhile to stick your ground. You will have confronted the situation and at least attempted to preserve a learning environment for the other students, without launching into a fruitless argument with the student about what she or he may or may not have been “using,” and why the student chose to attend class in such a state. Whether or not you want to alert counselors or health services at the college or university may depend on whether or not the student is a repeat offender, and local policies.
Now, it’s your turn: how do you handle this type of behavior from students in your classroom? Please leave suggestions in comments below. And let us know, too, if you have a scenario you’d like to see us address!
(Photo from Flickr user Mark Watson and licensed through Creative Commons.)