Trigger Warnings and Emotional Distress

How should librarians present material that may upset some students?
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

Last school year, Rob Good showed a video on post-Civil War slavery to the students in his history class at Ladue Horton Watkins High School in St. Louis, MO. The PBS documentary Slavery by Another Name depicts a convict system in which African Americans in the South were forced to work against their will. The video wasn’t particularly graphic, but it did include a death row scene that was especially upsetting to a girl in the class.

“She became very emotional and said, ‘This makes me feel really bad,’” the teacher commented.

Good felt the material was relevant because of recent attention to the arrests and police shootings of young African American men. Now, he’s more careful to alert students to images or topics that might trigger distress or reminders of traumatic experiences—the reason why such advance statements are called “trigger warnings.”

“If anything I’ve been less cautious about sharing controversial issues,” Good says, “but I’ve been more intentional about framing them for students.”

Trigger warnings have been a hot topic on college campuses, especially since the University of Chicago told incoming freshmen last fall that it did not support trigger warnings or safe spaces—spots on campus where students, especially LGBTQ students, can find support and escape talk that they feel to be harmful or offensive. Trigger warnings have also been removed from reading lists at Columbia University in New York City this school year. Meanwhile, at American University in Washington, DC, student government leaders are pushing for mandatory trigger warnings, saying that they make education more accessible for students who have experienced trauma.

But K–12 educators and librarians also say they sometimes alert students to potentially upsetting topics—even though they don’t always use the term “trigger warnings.” Knowledge has also spread about the effects of extreme stress and trauma on children and youth, contributing to greater awareness in schools about how students—especially those in marginalized groups—can feel victimized by topics that come up in the curriculum.

1702-Triggered-PQLibrarians, educators, and free speech advocates are divided over the benefits—and potential harm—of trigger warnings. Supporters say that advance warning about certain types of content serve to protect students from trauma they may experience while absorbing passages involving violence, sexual situations, or other content. Opponents claim that a warning amounts to the same thing as labeling a book, leading down a slippery slope to censorship. Such warnings, they say, fail to take into account the whole book, including its literary quality and approach to a topic. Challenging reading experiences also serve to inform students and build resilience for situations they may face in the future, they argue. For many educators and librarians, a vital alternative is to have conversations that prepare students for complex, enriched reading and discussion.

As trigger warnings have become more politicized, some educators wonder whether groups and individuals have joined the call for trigger warnings because they want to “control content based on preference,” says Jessica Burnquist, who teaches English at Combs High School in San Tan Valley, AZ.

“Sometimes I think those outside of the classroom have stymied the opportunity for phenomenal discourse and learning because they would prefer to remove a controversial topic from the classroom than to trust the instructor to handle it with care,” she says.

Burnquist uses trigger warnings—what she describes as “front-loading of contextual content”—prior to teaching literature that is “complex in nature” because she says it helps to set the stage for what students will read and discuss.

“In many ways, a trigger warning need not be a call for alarm,” says Burnquist, who wrote about her approach in a blog post. “Rather, if the instructor establishes a strong contextual background and is up-front about the nature of the material that will be encountered, then that type of instruction provides a warning—but it is a warning that comes loaded with information and which simultaneously readies the students for what may prove to be emotionally challenging material.”

Educators’ concerns

Some teachers say that concern over how students might react to a tough or uncomfortable topic has influenced their decisions about what to emphasize in their lessons—even those that are a standard part of the syllabus.

At Good’s school, shortly after the election, two students were disciplined after they chanted “Trump, Trump,” and one said that black students should sit in the back of the bus. Now, Good says, he wonders if teaching about Rosa Parks will trigger emotional reactions for some.

George Cassutto, who teaches civics at Harmony Middle School in Hamilton, VA, said he put his discussion about sending ground troops into Syria on hold because he was concerned about upsetting a Syrian student in his class.

“There are some things that I have put on the back burner and have tried to present in a much less emotional way,” he says, noting, however, that unless a counselor or the family has informed teachers that a child has experienced a traumatic event or feels under attack in some way, it’s difficult for teachers to predict how students might be affected.

While teachers can gain insight on issues with particular students from their Individual Education Programs (IEPs) and 504 Plans, which might contain information on emotional challenges, Burnquist wants to create a “safe classroom environment” for all. That way, more students may feel comfortable opening up about topics that might be troubling them.

Attuned reader’s advisory

Since school librarians tend to consult one-on-one with students regarding books and other resources in the library, their experiences with kids and teens can be different than those of teachers who are presenting lessons to an entire class. While not warning kids away from certain titles, on an individual readers’ advisory basis, librarians can consider where students might be emotionally and guide them appropriately.

K.C. Boyd, lead librarian at the East St. Louis (IL) School District, says she will sometimes have a private conversation with a student to let them know if a book is going to get “a little dicey.” In a school that is only 20 minutes away from Ferguson, MO, where the police shooting of 18-year-old Michael Brown in 2014 led to weeks of racial unrest, Boyd views the library as a “safe place” where students can find support as well as books with relatable characters.

In her high school, “there is a general understanding that we have a special population of kids who are living at or below the poverty line and with that comes a lot stresses,” Boyd says, adding that it’s important for educators to form relationships with students as much as possible. “You have to be in tune with the heartbeat of what’s going on with these kids.”

Of course, some librarians are working under more restrictive policies than others. In Highland Park Middle School, the Dallas, TX, school where librarian Jill Bellomy works, parents now have the opportunity to review all titles that will be taught in the coming school year, which Bellomy says has “weakened literature studies” and caused educators to be “ultra-sensitive.”

“The community tends to accept a classic as a worthy choice (despite the subject matter) and views modern literature as ‘dumbed down’ in spite of its literary merit,” she says. “This broad generalization is keeping relevant texts that would engage our students out of the classroom and not allowing a more balanced, varied literature curriculum.”

“Life doesn’t filter”

Some experts argue that in an era in which schools are concerned about respecting everyone’s feelings, the purpose of education is getting lost.

“Education isn’t a dangerous thing,” says James LaRue, director of the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom and the Freedom to Read Foundation. “Education is preparation for the world.”

Pat Scales, former chair of ALA’s Intellectual Freedom Committee and author of SLJ’s Scales on Censorship column, views the labels that some libraries put on books as equivalent to trigger warnings, which she says “violate the core values of librarianship.”

The topic of labels and restricted sections in libraries came up in SLJ’s Controversial Books Survey last year. The results showed that compared to a 2008 survey, school libraries are more likely now to place content labels on books or to have restricted sections for books containing mature content. The practice of using content labels had increased the most at the elementary level, from 18 to 33 percent. Twenty-seven percent of respondents at the middle school level said they currently used labels, compared to 10 percent in 2008, and in high school, the number has increased from six to 11 percent.

“Instead of labeling books, we need to practice good reader guidance,” Scales says. “Booktalk the books and let readers know that they can return a book if they don’t like it for any reason. If trigger warnings are placed on books, then every YA title would have a warning sticker. I don’t know why we are so afraid for readers. They will reject what they aren’t ready for.”

Burnquist notes that confronting a difficult topic, instead of skipping over it, might be exactly what a student needs.

When her class was reading Kyoko Mori’s Shizuko’s Daughter (Holt, 2014), which includes the suicide of a character’s parent, Burnquist received a note from a student who was feeling upset. Talking with him, she learned that he had a family member who had committed suicide that year. He rejoined the class, but the conversation gave Burnquist the opportunity to refer him to the school counselor.

“I discussed how good writing often catches us by surprise like that,” she says. “In essence, I think that avoiding a subject can do a disservice, because life doesn’t filter what occurs on a daily basis.”

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