Responding to student disclosures
How to Respond to a Student Who May Have Experienced
Abuse or Assault
As faculty and staff members, you may find yourself in the position of suspecting that a student has been impacted by sexual assault, relationship abuse or stalking. You may also be faced with responding to a direct disclosure. Statistically, we know that one in four women between the ages of 16 and 24 has been a victim of sexual assault. We also know that 1 in 6 men have experienced abusive sexual experiences before age 18. According to the National Center for Victims of Crime's Stalking Resource Center, Eighteen- to 24-year-olds also have the highest rates of stalking victimization.
These types of experiences can be very traumatic for any individual, including students. They can impact students’ ability to eat, sleep and concentrate in class or on their assignments. Over time, trauma can have serious long-term, negative effects on a student’s educational experience. Faculty and staff often are among the first to notice that a student is struggling. However, they may not fully understand what they are seeing or know how to help. In these situations, faculty and staff members can play an important role in helping a student access the support and resources that can help the student begin to heal.
The Three Rs to Remember When Working With Students Impacted By Trauma
In some instances, a student may disclose an assault or other trauma she or he has experienced either verbally or in writing. When this happens, the student is letting you know that s/he has made the decision to trust you. This can feel like both an honor and a responsibility. In other instances, a student may not disclose, but you may begin to notice subtle or not so subtle changes in a student’s behavior or academics that suggest that something might be wrong. These may occur immediately after the incident or weeks or even months later. They may include:
- Lack of attendance – the student may stop attending class or attend intermittently. This may be caused by depression or irregular sleep patterns brought on by trauma
- Incomplete or missing tests and assignments– trauma can impede a person’s ability to concentrate, making it difficult to study or complete assignments
- Withdrawal – the student may become noticeably less social, no longer participating in events, conversations and activities as s/he did in the past
- Increased risk taking – in contrast or in combination with being withdrawn, the student may begin to engage in more high risk behaviors such as excessive drinking or self- harm as a means of coping or escape
Research conducted over the past several decades consistently confirms the therapeutic importance of supportive, non-judgmental responses to disclosures of sexual and relationship violence. When a survivor discloses, the most important thing you can do is listen and show your compassion and concern. Responses like “I am so sorry,” “what happened wasn’t your fault,” and “how can I support you?” help promote survivors’ healing and let them know that they are not alone. Survivors report that responses that appear to blame the victim or that attempt to investigate or solve the crime have the negative impact of causing the survivor to shut down and avoid seeking further help or support.
If you suspect that the student may have been impacted by a traumatic experience, but haven’t received confirmation through a disclosure, it can be helpful to reach out to the student and simply ask if there is something wrong. Many students don’t feel that they can ask for help, especially from faculty members. When approaching a student, let her/him know that you have noticed that something that concerns you and that you just want to make sure that s/he is okay, or if not, that s/he gets the help s/he needs. It’s important to let the student know that some disclosures need to be reported to the University, so that it might be best important to keep details vague. If the student would like further assistance, you will help them connect with an office on campus where they can talk confidentially.
Faculty and staff members play an important role in assisting students who have experienced trauma from sexual and relationship abuse. As first responders, faculty and staff’s role is to help to the student know that there are community resources that can help. As faculty and staff, it is important to understand that your role is not to provide counseling or take on the problem for the survivor
Students who have experienced physical or sexual assault should consider seeking medical attention, even if s/he doesn’t report feeling injured. Students who report being in immediate danger or who want to report the crime should be referred to the police.
SHARPP provides confidential support, information, advocacy and police and medical accompaniment 24 hours/day to members of the UNH community. SHARPP’s trained staff and student advocates empower survivors through a victim-centered approach that educates the survivor about their options and rights. Through a conversation with a SHARPP advocate, the survivor has the chance to speak with an expert who knows both the UNH and community resources and remedies and who also has experience supporting survivors on the UNH campus. SHARPP advocates can help survivors negotiate conversations with their professors about their academics, learn the distinctions between the NH Criminal Justice system and the UNH Conduct system, advocate for specific remedies and access Victims’ Compensation funds.
Students can sometimes feel reluctant to seek help from strangers, so faculty and staff can opt to accompany the survivor or make a phone call on the student’s behalf.
As a faculty or staff member you can serve an important role in helping survivors. By recognizing, responding and referring students, you are letting them know that you care about them and want to help.
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