RAs are a first point of contact for many students who are harassed and victimized by their peers. However, few of us take enough time to consider how the issue can directly impact our RAs until a student staff member becomes the target. Too often, we either minimize harassment as simply part of the job or are caught off guard and fail to respond effectively. This is unfortunate both because it is common for RAs to encounter abuse and because there are strategies to manage this campus issue. This article will provide suggestions to address RA victimization before it happens, to manage the actual incident (or series of incidents), and to follow-up effectively.
Before detailing these strategies, it is useful to consider what constitutes harassment and victimization of student staff. Ultimately, any violation of school policy and any behavior that you would not tolerate if directed to a non-staff student should be considered just as unacceptable when targeting a RA. RAs are often the first staff members to respond to conflicts, late night incidents, and situations where drugs, including alcohol, are involved. These realities of the RA position make RAs easy targets for abuse. Students who are confronted and/or documented may lash out at the RA staff both during an incident and following one. Some specific examples of RA harassment and victimization that I experienced as a RA or was experienced by RAs whom I supervised are:
• Verbal abuse including profanity, yelling, and threats
• Harassment via malicious emails or postings to websites
• Door vandalism including torn decorations, graffiti, super glued doors, urination, and door decorations being set on fire
• Residents indecently exposing themselves
• Destruction of RA property including tampering with items left in common areas and vandalism of a RA’s car
• Physical violence – the most common incidents involved pushing and shoving, but two more serious incidents were a RA being punched and a door that was rigged to tip a 50 gallon garbage barrel full of water and trash onto a RA.
I list these examples to help frame the concept of RA harassment, but want to stress that they occurred over a series of years and with different staff members at different institutions. As is the case with many critical incidents and campus concerns, RA victimization will not impact every RA, but it will likely impact every staff. As such, it is important to consider what steps RA supervisors and residence life departments can take to address RA harassment and victimization.
The best time to consider the issue of RA victimization is before a school year begins and well before you must deal with an actual incident. The list below includes key strategies to help you consider this issue and what you can do proactively to reduce its impact on your staff and its occurrence on your campus.
• Know relevant school policy that covers harassment and victimization and how it applies to staff. Check your code of conduct, harassment policy, and any statements on failure to comply or interference with the judicial process.
• If your current policy does not adequately cover your staff, consider making revisions and/or additions. Specific policies on failure to comply with a reasonable directive and interference with the judicial process can be especially helpful in addressing abusive behavior that staff may encounter while performing their job.
• Create policies and procedures with the safety of staff in mind. Require duty rounds to be completed with partners and create guidelines for student staff to call in professional staff (residence life and campus safety) to respond to escalating incidents.
• Make it clear that all incidents directed to staff should be reported. Often staff will hesitate and delay reporting, so it is important to repeatedly emphasize this expectation to all layers of staff.
• Discuss staff harassment during training and make sure that it is covered in your manual. If your staff complete a “Behind Closed Doors” activity in training, add a scenario that includes RA harassment.
• Consider assessing your staff’s experience with victimization. Creating a survey that is part of your mid-year and/or year-end evaluations could provide a more complete understanding of the climate for your RAs.
Incidents of RA harassment and victimization can be anything from a resident who becomes abusive during a fire alarm, to escalating vandalism to a RA’s door, and even more. The specific nature of the problem will dictate the immediate action needed, but the points below will help you form your response.
• Acknowledge the problem and/or warning signs of a problem as soon as possible. Ask yourself and other staff involved if you are downplaying a concern or incident because it involves a RA and if you would you react differently if it targeted a resident.
• Support the staff member involved — even in cases where the RA’s style may have been a factor, make sure you do not allow this to minimize the incident or take precedence over the harassment s/he has experienced. The first priority should be responding to the incident rather than detailing what the staff member could have done differently.
• Consider ways to remove the RA from potentially problematic situations. This could involve reworking your duty rotation or even re-assigning the RA to another location in the most extreme cases. If physical safety is a concern, immediate action must be taken to keep your student staff member safe.
• Foster and encourage support from fellow RAs by incorporating them into the response. Building staff can do increased rounds, staff from other buildings can assist with duty, and all staff can work to limit and reduce gossip.
• Use the full extent of your resources and partner with campus safety staff/police as needed. Provide your RA with all the support and options that you would offer another student in similar circumstances (options to press charges, increased campus safety presence, and so on).
• Meet with floor residents (as a group or individually) as soon as possible to review community standards. Carefully consider the best location and leader for this meeting (or meetings) and the role that the staff member involved should play.
Follow-up and Processing
Even after the initial response and management of a situation, there is still more work to be done. It is important to see the problem through to resolution and to process appropriately with those involved. Consider the strategies below as you work to bring closure to the situation.
• Continue to support the RA and make a referral to counseling if needed. Recognize the full extent of the impact on the RA’s overall wellbeing, as the experience may affect a RA’s school work, personal life, and job responsibilities.
• Move forward with judicial charges and sanctions as warranted. Evaluate if there are additional steps needed to fully convey the serious nature of the incident. For example, it may make sense to have a senior staff member hear the case, rather than the building RD.
•Follow up with other student staff who took on additional responsibilities and thank them for their support. It is important to frame the additional work as part of being a team and not as a result of the targeted RA’s failure to handle a situation.
• Try to identify a specific task or project that the targeted RA can take on and have a positive and successful experience. Encourage the RA to maintain as much positive contact with his/her residents as possible through programming and individual interactions.
• Evaluate if a follow up meeting with the floor or specific residents is needed or if a letter should be sent to area residents reaffirming your community standards.
• Process the incident with your professional staff and consider if there are changes in policy, procedures, or training that would have helped avoid or better manage the incident.
Due to the nature of their responsibilities, RAs are especially susceptible to abuse and mistreatment. Harassment of student staff should never be minimized, tolerated, or ignored. We trust and train our RAs to live and work in our communities in a way that our professional staff simply cannot. This unique position is a terrific leadership opportunity, but it also puts our student staff at increased risk to be the target of abuse. Given this reality, professional staff must work purposefully to reduce such abuse, we must be ready to respond to acts of victimization quickly and effectively, and we must always care for our staff as well as we care for all our students.
Work Consulted and Recommended Resource
Palmer, Carolyn. Violent Crimes and Other Forms of Victimization in Residence Halls. North Carolina: College Administration Publications, Inc., 1993.
Submitted by Leah K. Parker