The Curriculum and the Campus Crisis: When Campus Shootings Impact Classroom Instruction

Published in:

A National Symposium

November 20–21, 2009

Clark Atlanta University, Morehouse College, and Spelman College
Atlanta, Georgia


The rise in campus shootings has changed the belief that college and university campuses provide a safe environment for students. Recent shootings, ending in fatalities such as the ones at Delaware State University and Virginia Tech, have shaken students around the country by the idea that such shootings could have happened on any university campus (Rutherford and DeVancey, 2008). Current research investigates what went wrong in these situations, the psychological profiling of students as a means of filtering out potentially dangerous students, and proposed new ways to deal with similar situations should they recur. However, little research has focused on how the curriculum is affected by a campus crisis and the role that faculty members play in facilitating discussions about these events in the classroom (Lipka, 2007).

This research explored how campus shootings affected professors/student engagement in the classroom and curriculum adjustments. Findings from this study provide the foundation to (1) determine if the recent campus shooting events had an impact on the curriculum or classroom setting, (2) determine the degree to which professors amended the classroom experience, and (3) assess methods for reducing the impact.

Background – Welcome to the Crisis Culture

On Friday, September 21, 2007, the campus of Delaware State University (DSU) was forced into lockdown after two students were shot. Approximately four to six shots were fired. A 17-year-old male student was shot once and was hospitalized in stable condition and a 17-year-old female student was shot twice and was initially reported to be in serious condition. That student later died.

While many colleges and universities were better prepared in terms of timely warning notifications because of the criticism that an investigative report revealed after the Virginia Tech incident, attention to how the tragedy should be addressed in the curriculum remains absent from the academy. Professors must begin to learn how to teach course content and address the realistic traumas that students may face in a manner that allows the students to understand and cope with the crisis and remain focused on academics. Additionally, it becomes an imperative to incorporate discussions about crises into the curriculum because many of today’s students are directly impacted by what is happening in the United States and abroad; for example a disparaging job market, the worsening global economy, and violence both at home and on campus.

Literature Review

The literature on crisis intervention has suggestions for campus administrators and crisis intervention teams (Asmussen and Creswell, 1995) but does not address individual classroom responses. Professors at Western Kentucky University took measures to address the pedagogical issues surrounding the specific events of September 11 and to consider the broader issue of teaching and learning in any crisis or in any circumstance during which difficult or emotional issues may be raised in the classroom (Hovet, 2002).

While there is no one way to initiate a discussion about a crisis like a campus shooting, economic woes, or managing life with a military parent, there are possible approaches that work in the classroom. According to Poe (2002), if a professor decides to address current crisis topics in class it is necessary to consider the following:

  • How consistent is this topic with the goals for the course?
  • Whose needs are being met by addressing this topic?
  • Announce to students the nature of the topic and the reasons for addressing it.
  • Set firm ground rules for the discussion.
  • Notice if some students seem to need extra help coping with the issues or events under discussion. Be prepared to make a referral to appropriate campus services.

Poe (2002) further asserts that such topics/events do create a “teachable moment” and students can be encouraged to learn from them.

Many universities issue documents to the faculty that encourage taking the initiative to acknowledge violent events as traumatic and meaningful to all involved; however, professors are cautioned to set time limits on the discussion and take measures to ensure that students do not feel as if instructors are minimizing the importance of these events or their feelings.

There are several problems behind the ideas of both setting time limits and ensuring that issues are not minimized. What is an appropriate time limit to set up the terms of a discussion about a crisis? Would it be more plausible to spend some part of class time talking about all current events as they relate to the curriculum or that concern students, so that when a crisis does arise class is not interrupted by moving away from the scheduled syllabi? Secondly, how can an instructor decide what is an appropriate response to match, not minimize, the impact of the crisis? A symbolic acknowledgement in class and the professor’s own micromanaging of the time frame can be perceived as inadequate expressions of the seriousness of the situation at hand (Matisons, 2003). Ultimately, the best way to handle crises in the classroom is to have specific classroom policies and administrative/campus policies in place before incidents arise.

Method and Sampling

The study was conducted using a qualitative method with a phenomenological research design. The sample for this study was comprised of 11 professors at Delaware State University. The respondents were selected using a single criterion of being a current professor at Delaware State University. Eleven questionnaires were completed before reaching the point of saturation.

Of the eleven respondents, six were males and five were females. The respondents came from five different departments. All of the respondents were teaching at the university when both the Virginia Tech and Delaware State University shootings took place. None of the respondents had previous exposure to violence, aside from movies, video games, and news coverage. The data was collected using e-mail after the respondents were contacted via telephone to participate in this research. The questionnaires were completed between July 2009 and September 2009. The original set of questions consisted of seven items, which can be grouped into two categories: filtering and classroom experience.

Data Analysis and Interpretation

The analysis of responses showed that three broad themes emerged: focus on crisis when necessary, low impact on instruction, and lack of crisis management preparedness for faculty.

Theme 1: Focus On Crisis When Necessary

Like their corporate counterparts, in recent years colleges and universities have been beset by a wide variety of crises that, although not as devastating as Katrina and 9/11, have seriously damaged their infrastructures, reputations, and prestige (Calhoun, 2007). The respondents in the current study assessed their perception of being able to focus on a campus crisis is the classroom by being more attentive to events as they occur and the impact of those events on students:

  • “I have become better at dealing with students displaying signs of emotional distress. Where in the past I would take a “shake it off” approach…”
  • “With freshmen, I think it is a critical part of adjusting to college, learning how to deal with crises living away from home without their parents’ input.”

As supported in the literature by Sal D. Rinella and the Society for College and University Planning (2007) the major issues following a campus crisis are technical, tangible, and logistical. However, those individuals impacted by these events will see them in a very personal way. Faculty must be flexible on policies affecting students during the initial days of recovery during a crisis and should be open to discussing the events and how they affect the students, faculty, campus, and community. The way university personnel address the crisis will play a large part in creating a lasting impression of how the crisis was handled.

Theme 2: Low Impact on Instruction

The probability of such events impacting classroom instruction is presented, therefore attention should be given to matters related to class scheduling and academic policy; however, the goal of returning to normalcy and not letting the events interrupt instruction for a prolonged period is essential. The respondents either incorporated the discussions of the events into their current curriculum or chose not to address the crisis in class at all:

  • “Since my classes involve news and video production, some students did video assignments on the safety procedures practiced by DSU Security.”
  • “I don’t go out of my way to discuss campus violence. Don’t really want to dwell on the negative. Students brought it up when they wanted to.”

While the majority of respondents did discuss the crisis in the classroom, their attention to the crisis was limited with an emphasis on returning to the curriculum. According to Carr (2005) campus violence impacts students, staff, and faculty in many ways. Victims may need to leave school by either dropping out or taking a leave of absence. They may move back home to recover, regroup, or transfer to a school closer to home. When victims remain in school, they may have problems concentrating, studying, and attending classes. The rush to return to normalcy after a crisis may contribute to the lasting impact of those events. In a recent study by Birchard (2009), findings demonstrated that while a shooting at Dawson College did not affect the academic performance of the students interviewed for the study, it is clear that universities must put mental health professionals in classrooms after these events to work with professors. The study also revealed that many professors were apprehensive about resuming teaching, afraid that students would break down in class. Carr and Birchard support the notion that healthy discussion of events that directly affect students should be incorporated into the curriculum, as needed, as many individuals may be reluctant to seek professional help.

Theme 3: Lack of Crisis Management Preparedness for Faculty

While colleges and universities have improved communication and collaboration efforts over the past decade to ensure the safety of students, faculty and staff, the respondents revealed that they are still lacking with regard to any sort of campus-wide emergency training. Most respondents reported that e-mail communication during the crisis consisted of resource numbers for students (i.e. information about the campus counseling center) and updates on the situation itself. Each of the respondents agreed that more can and should be done to prepare faculty to respond to the needs of students in a crisis but did not point specifically to any one department or campus entity that should be charged with this responsibility:

  • “We still did not talk enough, I think, about psychologically dealing with young people’s fear.”
  • “I think we could have been better trained in this area. When the shooting happened, I think we were all so shell-shocked that we didn’t know how to respond.”

Summary and Implications

Participants of this study offered two main suggestions for addressing crises in the curriculum. First, they stressed the importance of making sure faculty had guidelines for leading classroom discussions surrounding a tragic event. Second, they suggested (where appropriate) utilizing current events to complement the curriculum so that when events do occur both the student and faculty are already in the habit of engaging in discussions that center around crisis management and critical thinking. It was also found that while faculty displayed concern for students’ needs during a time of crisis, workload and responsibility outside of the classroom guided the desire of professors to engage in counseling moments in the classroom.

Outside of the public relations, health care, or business majors, faculty may not see the need to incorporate discussions of crisis management into their curriculum. Additionally, faculty may not know how to address a crisis in the classroom and deem student services as sufficient. While instructors want to foster a sense of normalcy during these times, they should also know what is effective or advisable in addition to student services provided by campus counseling centers or student affairs.

According to Wildman (2008) faculty are in the business of facilitating the process of meaning-making and should not be afraid to utilize such events as teachable moments. The faculty plays a primary role in helping an academic community sustain itself and work productively and positively after a crisis. Ideally, faculty development or campus entities responsible for teaching and learning should continue to provide mutual support and share ideas about how to handle the resumption of classes and discussions following a tragic event.

Although administrators have benchmarks to follow before, during, and after a crisis, faculty members receive little guidance as to what to say or do in their classrooms. It is crucial that faculty receive the tools to best support students in the context of their classes. This includes deciding whether to address the tragic events, and if so, knowing different ways to do so and the comparative value of those options (Huston and DiPietro, 2006). Faculty members also need reinforcement with regard to their role during a time of crisis. It is imperative to raise awareness among faculty that there are many possible ways of addressing the issue, within or outside the curriculum, and that some of them can be very low-risk and still beneficial to students and enable faculty to navigate these sometimes highly charged situations.

Appendix-Interview Questions

  1. How have previous experiences with violence on campus (whether direct or indirect) affected your daily classroom instruction?
  2. How do you think campus shootings and other national crisis events will affect your instruction?
  3. How did you address the DSU campus shooting incident in your class(es)?
  4. How did you address campus violence or national crisis events in your class prior to the DSU event?
  5. How do you think discussions about the campus shooting and other crises fit into your current course design?
  6. What outside events have you studied in order to bring discussions of crisis communication and disaster management into your classroom?
  7. How do you think the university did in terms of preparing faculty to address both campus and national crisis events in the curriculum?


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Rinella, S.D. (2007). The presidential role in disaster planning and response: Lessons from the front. Society for College and University Planning Southern Regional Conference.

Rutherford, L.G. & DeVancey, S.A. (2008). The effect of campus shootings on the quality of graduate students’ college experiences. Consumer Interest Annual, 54, 204-207.

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Wildman, T. (2008). Sustaining academic community in the aftermath of tragedy. About Campus, 12(6), 2-9.,doi:10.1002/abc.232

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Spring 2010: Challenge as Opportunity: The Academy in the Best and Worst of Times