Student Events with Sensitive or Difficult Subject Matters

It is vital to the mission of a university that students engage both in and out of the classroom with topics that can be sensitive, challenging, or emotional. Events related to war, trauma, sexual assault, self-harm, and other forms of violence can be powerful experiences for students to plan and attend, and can contribute in important ways to campus climate and student wellness. Thinking about how to frame your event in advance and connecting to relevant resources during the planning process can help ensure that your event is successful in meeting its goals and supportive of the community. This is a short guide to help student groups plan and implement events on topics that might be especially emotional for participants or audience members.

Framing the Event

What are your goals for the event?

Consider formulating some goals in writing for this event, even if you only share them with members of your group or planning committee. Start by completing these statements:

  • “By putting on this event, we hope to accomplish…”
  • “We hope that participants’ experience of our event is…”
  • “The reason we are having this event is…”
  • “The reason we are formatting the event in the way that it is currently conceptualized is…”
  • “One concern we have as we plan this event is…”

Content Notes

If your event will include graphic descriptions, depictions, or discussions of war, identity-based violence/hate crimes, abuse, sexual violence, or self-harm, you may want to consider using a content note. 

content note is a way of giving people more information about the content of an event so that they can decide for themselves whether or not this is the type of event they want to attend. For those who have suffered trauma, a content note can empower them to take care of themselves as they feel is appropriate.

Content notes are not guaranteed to prevent strong reactions. If you plan to include a content note, consider including it on advertisements, websites, social media, and tickets that people will see before the event. An example might be: “CN: depictions of sexual violence.”

  • If you include a content note on a program or at the beginning of the event, do so with enough time for participants to leave without feeling singled out or put on the spot.
  • Consider announcing a content note 5 minutes before the start of the event, while people are still being seated and then again before the event begins. 
  • If your event is made up of multiple presentations, performances, or components, it is generally okay to give a blanket content note instead of repeated content notes throughout, unless the event welcomes new participants/audience members throughout (as in the case of a conference, for example).

At the Event

A combination of content notes, sharing available resources on campus, and providing an opportunity to debrief or process difficult material can be ample structural support for students at a challenging or emotional event. 

Don’t put people on the spot at an event or ask them to share personal experiences in ways that feel compulsory.

Support Staff

If you think you may need support staff at your event, here are a few things to consider:

  • Inviting staff to your event (University Chaplaincy; DSDI Identity Centers; Center for Awareness, Resources, and Education (CARE); Student Life; Dean of Students Office, other advisors), can help to build relationships between students and staff on campus. If you decide to ask staff members to attend your event as support, have a conversation with those staff about goals for their participation and be open to their questions, concerns, and suggestions related to their presence. They may decide that their presence is not necessary or that another office might be the appropriate choice. 
  • Faculty who have research expertise in the topic of your event are also a good option. You can reach out directly to them, explain your event, and see if they are available to take part. 
  • Intentionally point out support staff and give clear explanations for why that staff is present and how they can be utilized. 

Including resources on a program, on your website, or social media could be a good option for students at an especially emotional event, should they need to talk with someone in the moment or after the event has concluded.

After the Event

Opportunities to discuss or debrief events with difficult topics or themes can be helpful. 

  • Consider having members of your group stay after an event or reconvene in a different space in case anyone wants to talk or wants to be pointed toward resources, but know your own limits and abilities. This after-event time may also be a good opportunity for inviting a faculty member with expertise in the area of your event. 
  • Consider providing discussion questions in your program or on social media.

If you would like to discuss receiving additional staff support or advice for your event, please contact the Dean of Students Office.