Academic Advising Resources


 How Far Does Your Policy Go When a Student Goes Too Far?
By Jody I. Svartoien-Conway and Melissa L. Rathburn

In recent years, the number of students entering college with mental and emotional problems has increased significantly (Hollingsworth, Dunkel, and Douce, 2009). This trend has led many colleges and universities to develop policies that address disruptive student behavior. While most institutions’ policies outline specific expectations and consequences for classroom settings, they often do not address one-on-one settings such as academic advising offices. Academic advisors and other front-line staff need policies that will protect them from such inappropriate behavior as: emotional outbursts, belligerent language, or even physical assault. Understanding and anticipating the triggers for a student’s “flashpoint” – words or actions that cause a student to lose control of his or her emotions – can also help prevent a situation from escalating to the point that such a policy must be actuated (Mayer and Patriarca, 2007)
Although flashpoint triggers vary depending on the individual and the situation, advisors should attempt to defuse the situation using the following techniques:

  • Speak in a low tone and take the student to a private area of the office (ensure that other staff are able to see, hear, and intervene if needed).
  • Listen attentively and patiently without judging or responding too quickly; the student may simply need to vent before he or she is ready to focus on a solution to the problem.
  • Paraphrase the issue and/or feelings that the student has described. ("If I understand correctly, you're worried that you won't be eligible for your scholarship next semester because you were accidentally dropped from a class for non-attendance.")
  • If it is necessary to pause during the conversation to look something up or step away briefly, explain this to the student so he or she does not feel ignored. ("I just need to pull up your test scores to verify that you have met the prerequisite and then I can register you for this course.")
  • When referring the student to another office, explain who can help and what to expect when they arrive, and offer to call ahead or even escort the student to the appropriate location. ("This isn't the office that handles Biology course permits, but I can call that department for you to make sure there's someone available to process the form when you get over there.")
  • If a student continues to create a disruption, calmly state that his or her behavior is not acceptable and explain the consequences that will result if it does not cease immediately. ("We do not allow shouting or profanity in this office. We will  gladly help you after you take a few minutes to calm yourself, otherwise, you will not be allowed to see an advisor until you have met with the Dean of Students to discuss your behavior.")

The ability to anticipate and respond to a student’s flashpoint is key because research shows that the number of students reporting emotional or mental health issues is on the rise. Among the more than 34,000 students surveyed in the National College Health Assessment, 37.4% reported that they felt overwhelming anger, and 47.1% reported that they felt overwhelming anxiety (American College Health Association, 2009). More significantly, 84.6% reported that they felt just overwhelmed by all they had to do. Students are experiencing tremendous burdens as they attempt to balance school, work, extracurricular activities (in some instances families), and their social lives. To further complicate the issue, some students who had been previously diagnosed with mental health issues may have discontinued medications and/or treatment due to insufficient health insurance coverage or belief that they no longer needed it. As a result, these students may exhibit behavior that is immature and impulsive, or controlling and manipulative (Ragle and Paine, 2009). Students who are insecure about their academic competencies or feel lost in a large student population may demonstrate disruptive behavior because they feel that it is the only way to get attention from faculty or staff. In addition, the emerging consumer mentality in higher education enables students to justify their aggressive behavior to themselves, their parents, and their peers (Seeman, 2009). According to Seeman, deviant behavior is “defined down” as social norms adjust and people become more tolerant of behavior that had previously been considered inappropriate. Some examples of behaviors that have become more accepted over time include: profanity, raised voices, and derogatory remarks about the institution, the department or an individual. If these behaviors are not checked, students will continue to view them as an effective means of communicating to obtain the attention or results they are seeking.

To address these issues, colleges and universities must send a clear message to their students explaining the behaviors that are not acceptable and the consequences for these actions. Too often, students attempt to use the excuse “But no one told me…” when confronted about a policy they have violated. When specific expectations for behavior are outlined, students should be held responsible for adhering to these standards or facing the ramifications resulting from their behavior. The challenge lies in developing an institutional policy that addresses a wide range of disruptive behavior in various campus settings, as well as the judicial process for violations, without becoming too verbose or idealistic. While it is important from a legal perspective that the policy is comprehensive, simplicity is key in ensuring that students will read and understand the policy. A policy is not effective if students are not aware that it exists and/or how it will be enforced. Furthermore, it is important for academic advisors (and others) that the policy is not limited to the classroom, but applies to all administrative settings on campus so advisors and other staff are supported if a disruptive incident should occur.
Policy review is critical to assuring that academic advisors and other campus staff are included in institutional behavior/disruption policies. Historically, disruptive policies have only guarded academicians, students, and administrative staff (e.g., police, president’s cabinet and judicial officers). Colleges and universities must look at expanding and clarifying policy related to disruption from a more inclusive approach.

The authors reviewed over 150 policies from large, midsize and small institutions. While policies varied greatly, many themes emerged and it quickly became evident that college and university staff, specifically academic advisors, were woefully excluded from disruption policies in large. The authors strongly suggest that advising administrators take the initiative to review their institution’s policy. This can be done individually by directors or include advising staff by asking them to review their institution’s policy on disruption and find one or two other campus policies that they find supportive of advisors or other staff. If the institution has a process established for policy review, work toward identifying possible verbiage changes that would be more inclusive of all members of the campus community being responsible for their actions and provide clear and understandable guidelines for behavior.

The following criteria can be utilized when evaluating college and university disruption policy. 

  • Language should be written in common vernacular. Too often students do not read policy due to legalese or vague parameters. Often policy is added to rather than revised. The result is lengthy and garbled policy, which students and the campus community do not read or use.
  • Policy should clearly state behavioral expectations both inside and outside of the classroom. Students and other college or university members must be able to understand expectations and boundaries. Institutions often convolute disruptive policies by combining issues related to the disruption by including classroom, campus venues (such as residence halls) or athletic sites. Inappropriate fan behavior is not the same as inappropriate behavior in a classroom or office.
  • Disruption policies must include all campus offices and environments outside of the classroom. Of the policies reviewed, very few included institutional office space or venues where staff conducted business. If mentioned within the policy, it addressed only top administrative buildings, which seemed to be a holdover from the 1960's and 70's when protests and sit-ins were common.
  • A sound disruption policy should include examples or descriptions of expectations or inappropriate behavior within an office such as: voice levels or attitude inconsistent with office behavior, profanity, derogatory remarks, physical evidence of anger, invasion of personal space, slamming doors, throwing objects or assault. The authors found very few institutional policies that clearly defined disruptive behavior and even fewer that provided specific examples. By identifying specific behavior, Policy cannot, nor is it expected to, identify every possible behavior that might not align with the mission or values of a university, but by providing some examples, members of the community are made aware of behavioral expectations.
  • Policy must also include verbiage that includes outside member of the university community such as vendors, contractors and family members. Unfortunately, incidents against academic advisors have included inappropriate actions by family members and parents. 

Disruption policies vary from institution to institution. While all policies should be reviewed by an institution’s General Counsel, we suggest establishment of a disruption policy that is inclusive of students, staff (academic advisors), and faculty, both inside and outside of the classroom such as:

“Academic disruption is defined as behavior that is not consistent with the institutional mission. [Insert key pieces from institutional mission/vision statements.] Emotional outbursts, belligerent language or physical aggression will not be allowed by any member of the university community, nor will behavior inconsistent with the institution’s mission/values be acceptable by those visiting the institution. Appropriate disciplinary action will be taken to ensure that the safety and well-being of all university members who are executing the mission of the institution.”

Communication is critical to any policy redesign. Campus constituents must be aware of the policy, its parameters and promulgation. Institutions can accomplish campus-wide policy change verbally through employee training, student orientations and through signage changes in brochures, websites and offices. Understanding and knowing that a disruptive behavior policy exists and is utilized is essential.

It is the responsibility of the institution to assure a safe and productive environment for all members of the campus. Academic advising professionals can play a role by assisting in policy development and office environment protocols that foster an appropriate professional environment that is safe and conducive to our work, as well as teach students and others what is, and what is not, appropriate behavior in the campus community and the community at large.



American College Health Association (2009, Fall). National college health assessment reference group executive summary. Linthicum, MD: Author.


  • This report, based on a survey of over 34,000 college students, provides rich data about their demographics, physical and mental health, and behaviors.

Hollingsworth, K. R., Dunkle, J. H., & Douce, L. (2009). The high-risk (disturbed and disturbing) college student. New Directions for Student Services, 128, 37-54.

  • This article discusses trends in student behavior over the past 20 years and the challenges that student affairs professionals face in working with disturbed and disturbing students.

Mayer, M. J., & Patriarca, L. A. (2007). Behavioral scripts and instructional procedures for students with learning and behavioral problems. Preventing School Failure, 52 (1), 3-12.

  • This article presents possible correlations between disruptive behavior and teaching practices and provides recommendations for addressing this behavior in the classroom.

Ragel, J. D., & Paine, G. E. (2009). The disturbing student and the judicial process. New Directions for Student Services, 128, 23-36.

  • This article outlines the judicial process in the context of disruptive behavior and uses case studies to illustrate how it can be a positive educational experience for the student.

Seeman, H. (2009). Preventing disruptive behavior in colleges: A campus and classroom management handbook for higher education. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Education.

  • This book provides common-sense advice to help college faculty and administrators understand, address, and prevent disruptive behavior from students.

Jody I. Svartoien-Conway
University of South Florida

Melissa L. Rathburn

University of South Florida

Cite this using APA style as:

Svartoien-Conway, J.I. and Rathburn, M.L. (2010). How Far Does Your Policy Go When a Student Goes Too Far?  Retrieved from NACADA Clearinghouse of Academic Advising Resources website

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