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Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Safety first!

I've been reading Mike Mattison's new book Centered: A Year in the Life of a Writing Center Director (available from www.lulu.com) and came across the following passage:
My first year here [Boise State], we had a student come in, demand for us to read a paper, and then say "I'll shoot someone" if it doesn't happen. Incredibly poor choice of words, and the student was immediately brought before the conduct officer (fortunately, the conduct officer and I knew one another from a committee, so we had a good rapport). The student wrote letters of apology to the consultants and was also barred from the Center. (25)

Perhaps it is because of Phil's post below about mental illness and the writing centers or just the mayhem generally busy-ness of our writing center here at SLCC, but I've been thinking a lot about writing center safety of late.

Like most writing centers out there, we've had our scrapes with people who misbehave, but have only had to call the campus police once in our entire 18 year history. In that case, the student wasn't physically violent, but when a tutor attempted to end a session for what she perceived as an ethical violation (the student demanded, loudly I might add, that the tutor write a passage for her instead of the writer doing it herself), the writer became verbally abusive. When I intervened the writer turned on me and then everyone in the room. At that point, I asked her to leave the Center immediately. She refused, so I informed her that if she didn't leave, I would call campus police to remove her. She apparently thought I was bluffing, and continued to harrangue us. I then walked over to the phone and started to dial. She beat a hasty retreat out of the Center.
Later she accosted me as I was walking to class. No doubt I probably should have reported her for that incident as well, but I let it drop, figuring that she must have had enough problems with her mental health than to be hassled by the campus police. I later found that she had been thrown out of every institution of higher learning in Northern Utah for inappropriate behavior.

There have, of course, been other less disruptive events in the Center, and sometimes some rather scary situations that take place not in the Center but in the classrooms/halls around us. (A student wandering the halls with a machete looking for his teacher is not a nice way to start the day, and hearing of a colleague assaulted by an angry student while in class with a skateboard does make one slightly paranoid about the skater punks who wander into the Center with their long boards in tow, worked up about a teacher and how "unfair" he or she is.) Ultimately we do have emergency procedures to fall back on. Eric Hobson has an excellent primer for developing such procedures in the Writing Center Resource Manual ("Safety in the Writing Center."

In all this may seem like an issue for directors, and you may ask why am I posting it to PeerCentered? I think everyone who works in a writing center should participate in discussions of safety. In the spirit of shared governance, and in the belief that the writing center really is a student place, we all need to figure out ways to best respond to disturbances, of whatever level of danger they might be.

Two steadfast rules that we developed early on here at the SLCC Student Writing Center are
  • If you perceive a threat or are uncomfortable in any way, it is your right to end a session with a student writer immediately.
and
  • You and other people are much more important than anything else in the room. If you are in danger leave the situation.
These, of course, are not our only emergency procedures since we adhere diligently to our College's comprehensive Emergency Procedures Manual, but they do express concisely the purpose of such emergency procedures. They also fit rather nicely with our College's Student Code of Conduct. The first policy mentioned covers quite a range: from an angry or abusive student writer to one who is, as it were, becoming over-affectionate. In all they've served us quite well over the years and were developed by the peer tutors and I way back in 1992.

I am curious what safety policies other centers have.

2 comments:

  1. Safety is definitely a big issue, and one that can affect tutors more directly than directors, expecially in WCs that are located in strange, out-of-the-way parts of campus.

    I just checked out our official manual, and of course it has all the standard University boilerplate stuff. But much more importantly, I know that our Director will support us in any decision we make. His office isn't in our WC (it's two floors away),so he can't offer any immediate help, but I know he'll go to bat for us if we ever have to eject a student for safety concerns. He stresses our being comfortable at all times, and just knowing I can go to him with any problem is a good thing.

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  2. I think with a delirious, overly stressed writer it is best for the consultant to attempt to alleviate the writer's anxiety right away. If there are absolutely no scheduling options available, contact your advisor. If they are unavailable look to your grad. assistant. If they are unavailable hide under a desk (sorry, inappropriate joke). No, in honesty assure them not having a paper analyzed by a consultant is not the end of the world. I figure if the person is this upset about not being able to meet with a consultant then the paper is due in the immediate future (that day or early the next). In my case I would see if I had time after my shift to assist the writer but understand this isn't realistic oftentimes for most consultants. I agree with Clint in safety taking priority for yourself and co-consultants first and foremost.

    I realize after typing this that I sound like I consider myself an expert on the topic. I'm not, far from it.

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