Classroom Disruption Guide

To submit an incident, fill out the Student Conduct Incident Report form.

How should “disruptive” behavior be defined?

We define “classroom disruption” as behavior a reasonable person would view as being likely to substantially or repeatedly interfere with the conduct of a class. Examples include repeated, unauthorized use of cell phones in the classroom; persistent speaking without being recognized; or making physical threats.

How can disruptive behavior be discouraged?

Classroom disruption is rare. The likelihood of encountering it can be further minimized by stating reasonable expectations in advance. For example, if you want beepers and cell phones turned off in class, say so in your syllabus, and on the first day of class. Explain the reasons for your classroom expectations, and invite student comments and suggestions. You will find that students are often the strongest supporters of classroom decorum. Most students want to help you create a positive and productive learning environment.

How should I respond to classroom disruption?

Faculty members have broad authority to manage the classroom environment. It is up to the faculty member to keep the focus on relevant issues, set reasonable time limits, assess the quality of ideas and expression, and make sure participants are heard in an orderly manner.

If you believe inappropriate behavior is occurring, consider a general word of caution, rather than warning or embarrassing a particular student (e.g. a good approach is to say “we have too many private conversations going on at the moment; let’s all focus on the same topic”).

When the behavior in question is irritating, or somewhat disruptive, try speaking with the student after class. Most students are unaware of distracting habits or mannerisms, and have no intent to be offensive or disruptive.

There may be rare circumstances when it is necessary to speak to a student during class about their behavior. Correct the student in a courteous manner, indicating that further discussion can occur after class.

Overall, key factors in responding to apparent disruptive or uncivil behavior are clarity in expectations; courtesy and fairness in responses (making sure students have an opportunity to discuss the incident with you in a timely manner); and progressive discipline, in which students—in less serious cases—are given an opportunity to learn from the consequences of their misbehavior, and to remain in the class. 

What should I do in the face of persistent and/or serious disruption?

Few teachers encounter such a situation. However, if a disruption is serious and persistent, and other reasonable measures have failed (e.g., a warning has been given and ignored), request the student leave your class for the remainder of the class period. Contact Campus Security if the student refuses to leave the class or if the situation becomes threatening or violent.

Anytime a situation is disruptive enough that you ask the student to leave for the remainder of that class period, you should contact the Dean of Students as soon after class as possible. Be prepared to provide documentation as to what occurred with the situation that resulted in your removing the student from class.

Suspension for more than one class period requires disciplinary action, in accordance with institutional disciplinary policies and procedures (Student Code of Conduct) through the Dean of Students and/or the Director of Student Life and Student Discipline. As a faculty member you may not withdraw a student from your class or take any other punitive action against a student. All disciplinary action must be done through the offices listed above.

When should I call for assistance from Security?

You should call Campus Security whenever you believe there is any threat of violence or other unlawful behavior—including a student’s refusal to leave a class after being told to do so. Any threat of violence should be taken seriously. There does not have to be a direct verbal or physical threat for you to call Security. If you are in fear for the safety of yourself or others in your class, contact Security. Err on the side of caution and notify Campus Security as soon as you can.

Should I act immediately or wait for a pattern of misbehavior to occur?

It’s a mistake to assume disruptive behavior will stop on its own. A fundamental tenet of progressive discipline is to document and respond to “small” incidents sooner rather than later. If needed, keep a written log of behavior reflecting witnesses, dates, and times of incidents. Early intervention—sometimes in the form of a “behavioral contract” developed by the Instructor—might help define needed boundaries for a student. Teachers who state reasonable expectations early, and enforce them consistently, help students avoid the harsher consequences that flow from more serious infractions.

What confidentiality standards should I follow?

The Dean of Students will take appropriate disciplinary action in cases of severe or chronic classroom disruption. Consequently, you should discuss allegations against identifiable students only with individuals who have some role in the disciplinary process. Examples of people who usually have such a role include your Department Chair, Associate Dean or Dean, and the Dean of Students. A general rule to keep in mind is that you should refrain from sharing any personally identifiable information from student education records (like grades, or reports of misconduct) with any person (including a colleague) who has no educational interest in the information. If in doubt, differ to the Dean of Students regarding Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA).

Do students have First Amendment rights in the classroom? If so, what are the limits to those rights?

The Supreme Court has held that students at public institutions do have limited rights to freedom of expression in the classroom. In Tinker v. Des Moines School District, 393 U.S. 503 (1969) the court held that the non-disruptive wearing of armbands in a classroom to protest the Vietnam war was protected by the First Amendment: “First Amendment rights, applied in light of the special characteristics of the school environment,” the Court concluded, “are available to teachers and students. It can hardly be argued that either students or teachers shed their constitutional rights to freedom of speech or expression at the schoolhouse gate.”

What if a disruptive student claims the disruptive behavior is the result of a disability?

The fact that a student may have a disability should not inhibit you from notifying appropriate authorities (including the Dean of Students and/or Campus Security as needed) about disruptive behavior. Students—with or without disabilities—need to know they must adhere to reasonable behavioral standards as set forth in the Student Code of Conduct, and that they will be held accountable for Code of Conduct violations. 

Will I or CNM be liable for defamation if I call Security or refer a student to the Dean of Students for disciplinary action and it’s later determined I made an honest mistake?

There are strong public policy reasons to support and protect individuals who make good faith reports of wrongdoing to appropriate officials, even if those reports later prove to be mistaken. Common law (or statutes in some locations) give people who report misconduct to proper authorities a “qualified privilege.” That means they cannot be held liable for defamation unless their report was made in bad faith—with knowledge the information they provided was false, or in reckless disregard of the truth.

NOTE: Portions of the above questions and answers text were taken from the Synfax Weekly Report, Week of July 9, 2001. Other text was written by Kris L. Ford, Dean of Students and Mr. Jean Clark, Security Director at Central New Mexico Community College.