A Few Thoughts on Supporting Sexual Assault Survivors in the Classroom

By Kristi Kaeppel

Like many others, the gut-wrenching testimony of the courageous Dr. Christine Blasey Ford impacted me heavily. Between the fluctuations of anger and sadness that overcame me as I watched, I also found myself reflecting as an instructor. I was struck by Dr. Ford’s comment that her academics suffered in the wake of the assault she described and that, despite her academic success now, she struggled during her first two years of college. That got me thinking about students I’ve taught that may have appeared detached in the classroom or who struggled to complete assignments–could some of that be the result of a trauma? And if I do have students in my classroom who are victims of sexual assault (the tragic odds being that I do), how can I better support them? Through readings, reflections, discussions, and experiences, I came up with a few considerations for instructors who wish to be more supportive of survivors in the classroom. Note that these are far from comprehensive nor do I believe that there is any one-size-fits-all set of guidelines that consummately speak for what is helpful for survivors. I invite additional insights from readers that we can include in our monthly newsletter.

Consider that Withdrawn Behavior May be A Response to Trauma 

Kristi Kaeppel, author of post
Kristi Kaeppel is a PhD candidate in the Learning, Leadership, and Educational Policy program with her concentration in Adult Learning. She works as a Graduate Assistant for the Certificate in College Instruction at UConn and as an instructor at Holyoke Community College. Her research interests include critical pedagogy, the teaching of critical thinking in college, and women’s navigation and resistance in patriarchal environments.

A victim of sexual abuse wrote anonymously in Inside Higher Ed how her previous self, before the sexual assault, would have excelled in graduate school, but now she struggled to stay afloat. She described the attitude she got in response from faculty, saying “There is sympathy, but no understanding. There is only critique and an immense pressure to perform like the students without my disability. I find myself begging faculty members to have faith in me and apologizing for things that are outside of my control.” She suggests that “faculty need to better understand mental health and avoid triggering students.”

Her words prompted me to mentally revisit dozens of interactions with students when their behavior was detached and aloof and when I may have failed to fully consider the reasons behind it. Naturally, we become frustrated when we put so much work into our course design, lessons, and feedback and are met with students who flake and seem to not be taking the course seriously. It’s work to continually remind ourselves to be compassionate, but now that I am aware that withdrawn behavior can be a consequence of trauma, I’m tasking myself with keeping this consideration in mind and refraining judgment (a good practice, in any case).

Use Your Powers of Perception and Notify of Potentially Difficult Material Ahead of Time:

In my reflections back on my own teaching, I recalled a moment when what seemed, to me, like an innocuous graph resulted in discomfort for one of my students. The graph showed rates of homicide and suicide gun deaths in the United States. During the presentation, a student started to display anxious behavior, breathing more heavily and fidgeting. This particular student was able to let me know this was an uncomfortable subject for her, but I wouldn’t expect all students to speak up this way. We may not be able to predict what subject matter our students will find upsetting and we cannot expect students to disclose their trauma to us, but we can employ our powers of perception to attend to subtle cues. We can keep in mind that concepts or topics that seem benign to us may not be to others. We can also make statements to show our understanding by acknowledging ahead of class material that it may be upsetting and that it is okay if someone needs to step out. Though a small gesture, it sends us a message that such feelings are normal and that we have empathy for them.

Give an Opportunity To Disclose Triggers Privately

Though it’s true that we can never predict with perfect accuracy what material may provoke uncomfortable reactions in our students, we can improve our foresight by asking students to optionally disclose topics that are difficult to them. You can have students email you or fill out index cards noting difficult subjects for them as one piece of information they can optionally share–provided that you keep these confidential. This may help get ahead of moments in class in which the student may not want to be present.

Interrupt When A Victim-Blaming or Dismissive Comment is Made

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There is a tension between allowing for a variety of perspectives to be expressed in class and not tolerating comments that will be deeply hurtful and that minimize the suffering of another student. With the news cycle having so many mentions of sexual assault in the past year, it’s likely that discussions of sexual assault cases will work their way into the classroom. A student may dismiss the seriousness of the allegations or make a victim-blaming comment. To someone who hasn’t experienced sexual assault, such a comment may be frustrating or seem to lack empathy, but to a survivor, this could cause them to have a painful emotional reaction or to completely withdraw themselves from future discussions.

As much as we may want our classes to be student-centered, we are authorities in the classroom and we should intervene when necessary. Even if we do not succeed in changing the mind of the person who made the hurtful comment, we still send a signal to other students that we are aware of how damaging a comment like that can be and that we won’t stay passive when we encounter them.

The suggestions have in common what I believe to be central characteristics of a skilled instructor–the ability to empathize with students and reflect critically on our practice. Of course, we will never be perfect and we may inadvertently upset someone or fail to consider the full range of experiences of our students–it is hard work. But it’s work worth the effort.

Additional Resources

University of Michigan’s Helping a Survivor of Sexual Assault

RAINN’s Tips for Talking with Survivors of Sexual Assault

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