Responding After a Tragedy
An In-The-Classroom Guide
Iowa is committed to caring for our students. This is never truer than when tragedy strikes. Be it national disasters such as 9/11 or Virginia Tech or local tragedies such as suicide or car accident involving our students, faculty, staff, and administration of the campus community are here to help.
For those of us who have contact with students in the classroom you may wish to help students through these events by providing time for discussions. When should these discussions occur? It is probably best to consider a discussion within a week of the tragic event.
Even if you prefer not to provide discussion time during class it is probably best to acknowledge the event. A national or local tragedy can result in students having difficulty with focus, concentration, and motivation. Failure to mention the event can result in students becoming more upset or angry. If you choose not to devote discussion time to the event, you might mention to students that there are resources on and off campus where they can obtain support:
- Resident Education – For students who live on campus, the RAs (resident assistants) and Resident Education Administration, are well trained to deal with many types of crisis situations.
- University Counseling Services (UCS) – Any student who is having a difficult time dealing with a tragic event should be encouraged to call us at 319.335.7294. We have therapists available throughout the day, Monday – Friday, 8:30am to 4:30pm.
- Dean of Students Office: Care and Support – Students are well served by the helping and caring staff of the Dean of Students Office. When tragic events effect one’s ability to manage school work, the Dean of Students Office can provide helpful assistance and support to students to make their best decisions concerning their academia.
- Threat Assessment and Care Team - Primary contacts when you are concerned with behaviors and situations which have a potential for self-harm and/or harm to others.
- Johnson County Crisis Center - Available 24/7 by telephone and via text for students who need to discuss critical matters in times when the University Counseling Center is closed.
If you do decide to provide an opportunity for discussion in your classroom, here are some important considerations.
- Discussion can be brief. Consider providing an opportunity at the beginning of the class period. Often, a short time period is more effective than a whole class period. This serves the purpose of acknowledging that students may be reacting to a recent event, without pressuring students to speak. You can even consider stating ahead of time, if appropriate to the circumstance, that time will be made available at the next class for discussion so students can plan ahead.
- Acknowledge the event. Introduce the opportunity by briefly acknowledging the tragic event, and suggesting that it might be helpful to share personal reactions students may have.
- Allow brief discussion of the “facts,” and then shift to emotions. Often the discussion starts with students asking questions about what actually happened and debating certain details. People are often more comfortable discussing facts than feelings. So, it’s best to allow this exchange for a brief of time. After facts have been exchanged, you can try to shift the discussion toward sharing personal and emotional reactions. If you are not aware of the facts, consider inviting someone into the class to provide this information from UCS, DOS, Police, or other campus office.
- Invite students to share emotional, personal responses. You might lead off by saying, “Often it is helpful to share your own feelings and hear how others are responding. It doesn’t change the reality of what’s happened, but it may take away from the sense of loneliness that sometimes accompanies stressful or traumatic events. I would be grateful for whatever you are willing to share.”
- If students begin “debating” the “right way” to react to a tragedy, it may be important to point out that we all cope with stress and trauma in different ways. There is no right way to react.
- Be prepared for blaming. When we are upset and confused, we often look for someone or something to blame. Essentially, this is a displacement of the strong emotion we are feeling. Attributing blame is a way of coping. The idea is that if someone did something wrong, then future tragedies can be avoided by doing things right. If the discussion gets stuck in blaming, you may try to move the discussion forward by saying, “we have been focusing on our sense of anger and blame, and while that is a normal part of this process, it might be helpful to move on to other thoughts and feelings you may be having”.
- It is normal for people to seek an explanation for why the tragedy occurred. Through understanding, we seek to reassure ourselves that a similar event could be avoided or prevented in the future. We might comment, “As human beings it is in our nature to seek a deeper understanding of traumatic events. It is a challenge to understand an unthinkable event. By their very natures, tragedies are especially difficult to explain. Uncertainty is particularly distressing, but sometimes necessary”. As faculty members we should resist the temptation to make meaning of the event. This is often not helpful as it interferes with a person’s natural process to derive their own meaning which is filtered through their own life experiences as well as their culture, gender and belief systems.
- Thank students for sharing, and remind them of resources on campus. In ending the discussion, it useful to comment that people cope in a variety of ways. If a student would benefit from a one-on-one discussion, encourage them to make use of the support services available to them as noted above.
- Important Links for When You Need Further Assistance with Students