How to keep protests from escalating to violence

Administrators balance free speech, campus safety

In the wake of the violent protest that recently broke out at the University of California, Berkeley in opposition to a speech by the controversial Breitbart News editor Milo Yiannopoulos, schools are grappling with the question of how to protect free speech on campus while preventing violence. 

Education Dive's Jarrett Carter emphasizes that Berkeley prepared extensively for the protest on campus, arguing that there's little more Berkeley could have done to prepare for the armed individuals who entered campus.

But he also argues that student activism is only expected to grow in the coming months and suggests that campus leaders be "highly prepared for emerging activism and demonstration on campus."

According to a study by EAB, 10% of students who entered college in 2015 fully expected to take part in a protest while in school, and 69% reported that they would support potential policies that would limit offensive speech on their campuses. 

Your student protest dictionary

Liz Brown, an EAB research consultant, stresses the potential impact that activism can have on all aspects of a college campus—not just on the students involved.

"[Activism] impacts students, faculty, and staff and their feelings about an issue," Brown says. "There can be consequences about enrollment as prospective students and their parents start to ask questions about campus and student protests."

Brown says the best tools for addressing student activism—and keeping it from escalating into violence—are communication and preparation.

Discussing controversial or contentious issues with a variety of stakeholders can help campus leaders better understand student concerns. Brown encourages administrators to find out whether the students are concerned about a one-time event or a recurring trend.

"When institutions call us about activism, the number one question we get is if we think it is a flash in the pan or something that will continue," says Brown. "Changing demographics on campus and our current political climate suggests that it is something that will continue, and so our recommendation is for leaders to spend the time and to be prepared for it."

More on the report

In terms of preparation, Brown recommends encouraging peaceful protests and planning how to respond to difficult questions from students related to controversial events.

"Consider how the words and actions of senior leaders, faculty, and staff might affect... relationships with students," suggests Brown. "Official statements or off-the-cuff partisan remarks might comfort students who are in agreement, but they also might unintentionally alienate others" (Carter, Education Dive, 2/2).

Brown's advice for supporting students post-election remains relevant


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