College faculty impart knowledge and skills students need to answer the challenges facing the country and the world — including the challenges that come with criminal victimization. Although U.S. crime rates have declined, in 2013, there were still 6.1 million violent and 16.8 million property victimizations, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (pdf).

College students of all genders experience high rates of victimization across types of crime, according to several recent studies. This means that every class likely includes students impacted by victimization.

Victimization can have wide-ranging effects. Aside from physical injury and property loss, victims of crime experience self-blame, post-traumatic stress, anxiety and fear, which can decrease work productivity, quality of life and of interpersonal relationships, and lead to decreased collegiate academic performance. Victims of crime often feel isolated and at fault — and most students do not report their victimization to the police (pdf), but rather share their experiences with friends (pdf), causing distress for those friends. See Bureau of Justice Statistics reports: Langton & Sinozich; Hart; Fisher, Cullen & Turner 

Addressing victimization in class may mitigate these adverse consequences. Teaching about victimization can help people identify experiences they have had and provide them with the language to talk about it. Including course material about victimization can normalize the experience, according to Janet Lee of Oregon State University (pdf), which may help victims understand they are not alone in what happened and that what happened is not acceptable. “Findings such as those in this study mean it is no longer acceptable in the structure of university departments to separate academic initiatives and policy from the physical and psychological safety of students.” — Jordan, Combs & Smith (2014) 

Teaching may increase awareness of victimization and support services, increase empathy and decrease victim-blaming among students in general. This may translate to better support for victims, since many students will know a victim during their college years. As students graduate, it may translate to a community and workforce that better understands the issues and can help with prevention and intervention strategies. Of course, these goals can only be realized if content on victimization is incorporated in multiple disciplines to maximize the number of students exposed.

This article provides a streamlined framework for presenting victimization related content responsibly, so students learn about victimization in a way that does not cause additional harm. It also addresses faculty compliance with institutional, state and federal reporting law and policy about victimization on campus.

VICTIMIZATION IN THE CLASSROOM FRAMEWORK

The framework focuses on giving students control over their educational experience, when possible, building on the theory that negative impacts of victimization result, in large part, from undermining an individual’s sense of control. The more information given to students about what is going to happen in the class, the more control they have over how they interact with the learning environment and material. More details in author’s 2014 paper, “Teaching About Victimization in an Online Environment: Translating in Person Empathy and Support to The Internet.”

Integrating victim issues starts with the syllabus. Below is an example of a syllabus statement:

Due to the nature of the material addressed in class, you may experience a need or desire to process some of your own experiences with violence. This is a normal and reasonable response given the subject matter. While the classroom is not the appropriate venue for this processing to take place, I am available outside of the classroom to provide referrals and offer class support as necessary. However, please understand that I am not a confidential resource, and may be required by federal law to report what you share with me to others at the college. This includes information you may share in discussion in class, a written assignment, discussion in my office, email, or other forms. For your reference, resources you may wish to utilize or share with others are listed below. Confidential resources are noted with an asterisk (*).

TBR7: Victimization
Monday: Bostaph’s intro
Monday: King & Bostaph, et al. on Idaho victim services
Tuesday: Fisher on sexual violence on campus
Wednesday: Miller on theory of change
Thursday: Cares crime victims’ classroom needs
Friday: Franklin on the victim-offender connection
Friday: Campbell on police and victims of sexual violence

This statement addresses a number of points. First, it reinforces that the focus of the course is academic in nature, so processing of personal experiences is better done elsewhere. Faculty can help support students with academic needs but cannot serve as counselors. Second, it highlights that faculty are not confidential resources and may have to share the details of what a student tells them with public safety and the Title IX coordinator. Faculty must be aware of reporting requirements that apply to them under federal (e.g., Title IX, Clery Act) and state legislation, as well as campus policy. While those systems are in place to ensure campuses support survivors and hold offenders accountable, a student may not be ready to engage with those systems.

Selected references for talking about victimization in the classroom:

Cares, A. C., Hirschel, D., & Williams, L. M. (2014). Teaching about victimization in an online environment: Translating in person empathy and support to the internet. Journal of Criminal Justice Education, 25(4), 405-420.

Cares, A. C., Williams, L. M., & Hirschel, D. (2013). Teaching about victimization. The Criminologist, 38(4), 1, 3-7.

Fisher, B. S., Cullen, F. T., & Turner, M. G. (2000). The sexual victimization of college women. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Justice Programs, National Institute of Justice and Bureau of Justice Statistics.

Hayes-Smith, R., Richards, T. N., & Branch, K. A. (2010). ‘But I’m not a counsellor’: The nature of role strain experienced by female professors when a student discloses sexual assault and intimate partner violence. ELiSS (Enhancing Learning in the Social Sciences), 2(3), 1-24.

Jordan, C. E., L.Combs, J., & Smith, G. T. (2014). An exploration of sexual victimization and academic performance among college women. Trauma, Violence, & Abuse, 15(3), 191-200.

Lee, J. (2008). Survivors of gendered violence in the feminist classroom. Violence Against Women, 14(12), 1451-1464.

Third, the syllabus statement above provides students with appropriate sources of support, including confidential resources. Reviewing this in class and including it on a course webpage reinforces these points. It may also be helpful to remind students of this when a class will cover material that may trigger an emotional reaction in those who have had experiences with trauma. All of this allows students control over what they share and how they approach class materials.

Faculty can include statements like those above, but disclosures of victimization from students may still occur in class discussion, assignments or conversation. These disclosures or even their potential can be distressing to faculty; Hayes-Smith, Richards & Branch (pdf) found evidence of vicarious trauma, particularly among female faculty fielding disclosures from students. If a student discloses, faculty can first acknowledge the trust and courage it took to share their experience — for example, “I appreciate that you would be willing to share your experience with me.” Instructors can follow up by outlining the role of faculty, which is to refer students to appropriate support resources and make decisions about any needs students have related to the course. Throughout the interaction, to help avoid inappropriate or unsupportive questions or statements, the focus is only on what a faculty member needs to know to help the student in the course and how any questions related to that can be asked in a sensitive manner that will not cause more harm or make the student feel blamed.

CONCLUSION: COMBATTING THE VEIL OF SILENCE

However, if we are going to teach about victimization, it does need to be done appropriately. While there is the potential for triggering a strong emotional response from students, that can be true of much class material and is not a reason to exclude it — it is a reason to be prepared. Although many people, including faculty, are uncomfortable talking about victimization, it need not be that way. Victimization is a part of people’s lived realities and, while many in society have difficulty talking about victimization, that is why it needs to be in the college curriculum. Teaching about victimization makes it more acceptable to talk about and helps people understand victims are not to blame for what happened. By not silencing the voices and experiences of victims, we no longer privilege offenders, denying them an aura of silence to exploit for more perpetration. For more information on course planning, see the July/August 2013 issue of The Criminologist.

Acknowledgements: My thanks to Linda Williams, David Hirschel, Mary Frederick, Susan Krumholz, Bobby Eckstein, Bridget Marshall, Lisa Bostaph, Kelly Knight, Devon Thacker Thomas and the members of the American Society of Criminology Division on Women and Crime for discussions and feedback over the years that inform my research on this issue.

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The views and opinions expressed here are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of Boise State University or the School of Public Service.

  • What do good – feel good trash. How about teaching people not to become victims and live as victims? How about teaching people to defend themselves and their families so they do not have to suffer and die?