How to respond to a student who may have experienced abuse or an assault
As faculty and staff members, you may find yourself in the position of suspecting that a student has been impacted by interpersonal violence (sexual assault, relationship abuse, stalking, and/or harassment). You may also be faced with responding to a direct disclosure from a student. Statistically, we know that the majority of victims of sexual violence and stalking (of all gender identities) report that it first occurred prior to the age of 25 (Smith et al., 2018).
These types of experiences can be very traumatic for any individual, and can impact a 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 a student might need.
Recognize, Respond, and Refer:
Working With Students Impacted By Trauma
In some instances, a student may disclose an assault or other trauma they have experienced either verbally or in writing. When this happens, the student is letting you know that they have 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. The student might leave a class session suddenly and without warning.
- 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 projects, conversations and/or classroom activities as they 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- Increased risk-taking – in contrast, or in combination with being withdrawn, the student may begin to engage in more high-risk behaviors such as excessive drinking/substance use or self- harm as a means of coping or escape.
It's important to note that these are just some examples of ways trauma can surface for students impacted by IPV. This should not be interpreted as an all-encompassing/exhaustive list. But rather a starting point for reflection. Faculty and staff members should assess whether behavior changes are occurring for a student that are different than how the student has interacted/engaged previously.
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/staff members. When approaching a student, let them know that you have noticed something that concerns you and that you just want to make sure they are okay, or if not, that they get the support they need. It’s important to let the student know that disclosures of IPV need to be reported to the University so it might be best to keep details vague should a student not desire a report. If the student would like further assistance, you will help them connect with an office on campus where they can talk confidentially.
It is expected that all UNH employees, except those protected by confidentiality (SHARPP, PACS, Health & Wellness), with knowledge of interpersonal violence involving a student report that information to UNH's Affirmative Action and Equity Office
Faculty and staff members play an important role in assisting students who have experienced trauma from IPV. As first responders, faculty and staff’s role is to help the student know that there are community resources available to them. As faculty and staff, it is important to understand that your role is not to provide counseling or begin an investigation.
Students who have experienced physical or sexual assault should consider seeking medical attention, even if they don’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 survivor-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 who also has experience supporting survivors at UNH. 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 accommodations and access Victims’ Compensation funds.