A dozen junior high track athletes are injured when their school bus overturns on an Idaho highway.
It’s a particularly stressful morning at the bus lot. Two drivers have called in sick, the buses are slow to warm up in the sub-zero weather and your mechanic has an attitude about repairing a sudden vital bus defect. Drivers’ personalities are clashing. Howard gets to work late. He approaches you, shaking, angry and incoherent. “I think my wife’s cheating on me. I think she’s cheating on me right now. I want to go home,” he says. “You can’t go home for that reason,” you reply, as you rush to your office to call in a sub driver. Howard stomps off to his bus, fuming. On the way, he bumps into Charlie and cusses at him for getting in his way. Instead of getting in his bus, he leaves the lot and goes to his car. Howard returns from his car with a handgun, shooting Charlie and two other drivers, before turning and heading toward the transportation office with a glazed look on his face.
Pressure is building
A scenario such as this is what James Karger, a corporate labor lawyer based in Irving, Texas, describes as a “monumentally inappropriate” employee reaction to a stressful workplace. Today’s workplace, he says, is more stressful than the workplace of years past, due to cost cutting, layoffs and increased efficiencies. “We’re all expected to do more, be better, be more efficient and work longer hours,” he explains. Combine this with an atmosphere in which supervisors and employees have no personal relationship and you have what he describes as a “boiling pot.” How, as managers and coworkers, can we prevent the pot from boiling over? Karger says the answer lies not in security measures, but in communication. “It’s not that security options are bad. It’s that they’re putting a Band-Aid on the problem. It’s not going to work in the long term, unless you change the way people deal with each other,” says Karger. He likens it to the use of metal detectors at the airport. They won’t stop anyone who wants to get a gun on a plane from doing so. They just help passengers feel more comfortable about being on the plane. It’s a superficial fix to a deeper problem. Karger recommends, instead, learning to communicate with employees and listening to their concerns. “You can’t train people to care, but you can train people who do care to show it,” he explains. As a manager, you can set up a card system for documenting significant emotional events in employees’ lives. If an employee’s mother dies, for example, you would enter the date of her death on a card and put it in the employee’s file. When the anniversary of the mother’s death rolls around the following year, you could approach the employee and ask how he’s doing. “I think it was a year ago today that your mother died. How are you doing? Is there anything I can do for you?” you would ask. This gesture would demonstrate to your employee that you empathize with him and care enough to keep a record of a day that he will never forget.
Know what to look for
What if you do everything right in communicating with employees, and an employee still goes over the edge? Karger says that the first step lies in recognizing the signs of danger. Uncontrollable shaking and nervous sweating are two warning signs. Another key warning sign is an employee who makes a threat, however idle. “What used to be taken as, ‘Well, he’s just blowing off steam,’ can’t be taken that way anymore,” he says. Employees need to be trained to report threats. Odds are that someone who threatens to kill will not do so. But if he does, the guilt and liability will lie on you for having failed to report it when you had the chance. Ellen Cicero, transportation director for Rochester (N.Y.) City School District, says she received a death threat from an employee while she was working in public transit. “He went around telling everyone that he was going to ‘blow me away.’ This was worrisome because I knew that he had a large cache of guns and he was really off the wall,” she says. The employee once brought a cake to work to celebrate Hitler’s birthday. He also made an official threat against the president of the United States when he came to town. Cicero, unfortunately, received little support in protecting herself from this employee and had to take her case to the Secret Service, which responded to the man’s threats against the president and scared him enough to back off. “I have never had anyone physically attack me, mainly because when I feel that an employee is angry enough to do that, I make certain that I am far enough away to be safe, or that someone else is with me,” says Cicero. According to Karger, this is good advice. If an employee is ready to act out, you should evacuate the area. “You can’t get shot if you’re not in the firing line,” he says. Be alert to employees’ moods and behavior. An angry employee who goes to his car and returns, for instance, may have brought a gun back with him.
Learn to calm emotions
If a situation gets to that point, your communication system has failed. You need to learn how to talk to difficult or angry employees in such a way that it reduces the risk of violence. Ed Green, transportation supervisor at Hot Springs County School District #1 in Thermopolis, Wyo., says that he de-escalates heated situations by individually talking to the involved employees and setting up a meeting with them in a neutral location. He has also been known to take walks with employees to discuss personal or professional concerns. Once, he had to separate a driver and parent who went over a table at each other during a meeting. “At the close of the meeting, hands were shook and no animosity was expressed,” he describes. Any of these situations could have grown larger if not handled properly. With an emphasis on listening, Green supports his workers when they are angry or overwhelmed. This approach has enabled him to quell problems before they get to the grievance level. The type of problems described by Cicero and Green are characterized by emotions being out of balance with logic, according to David LeSage, organization and management consultant in Washington, D.C. “Emotions are so volatile that they have to be dealt with first. Emotions knock out all logic,” he says. It’s like a glass filled to the rim with water. Any more water you add will just spill over the edge. The only way you can get more water into the glass is to pour out some of the water that’s inside. It’s the same for emotions, says LeSage. When people are in an emotional state, you cannot simply tell them to stop feeling that way. Their emotions are so consuming that they have no room for your feedback. “You must first acknowledge their emotional state and let them talk about it, using paraphrasing and empathic listening techniques — then, once you have let them spill out some of their emotion, there is a better chance that you can have some input they will have room for,” says LeSage.
Identify ‘problem’ people
Everyone in this industry, as in any other, has one or more employees who are consistently “difficult” (see sidebar below). With these individuals, in particular, it is important to facilitate communications and keep emotions in check. What you don’t want to do, however, is to shift the power into their hands. “Whether brow-beating others into acquiescence or avoiding distress by sitting on a decision, difficult people manage to gain control over others,” writes Robert M. Bramson, Ph.D., in his book Coping With Difficult People. Barbara Kay, transportation supervisor at Galeen (Mich.) Township Schools, says that she was taken on a veritable roller coaster ride by an employee who was a prime example of “give an inch, take a mile.” This driver had been having problems with two unruly students, who eventually started fighting on her bus. She didn’t feel she was getting any support from the school principal and wanted Kay to set up a meeting with the driver and the students right away. When her demands were not immediately met, she began quarreling with another driver over the lack of support she was experiencing. The disagreement grew into a shouting match. Kay took the driver into her office and let her vent. By listening, Kay was able to calm the driver enough to explain to her that she was not being singled out for nonsupport. Kay then scheduled a meeting with the students, the principal, the driver and herself, in order to resolve the matter. “This particular employee caused herself a lot of grief and trouble on a regular basis and was usually the one who didn’t get along with anyone for one reason or another,” says Kay. Chronic difficulty getting along with others is one of the common characteristics of an employee who commits an act of workplace violence, according to Thomas D. Harpley, Ph.D., author of Diffusing Workplace Violence and clinical director of National Trauma Services, a San Diego, Calif.-based company specializing in workplace violence education. This type of perpetrator has a history of people problems, says Harpley. “They’re not comfortable with people and people are oftentimes not comfortable with them. They’re kind of the loner or odd man out,” he explains. They also tend toward paranoia (guardedness, defensiveness or reading between the lines) and anger. Another common variable, says Harpley, is that the job is the center of the person’s life. “When paranoid people perceive that perhaps their job is in jeopardy… there’s a tremendous feeling of powerlessness,” he explains. What do you do with employees such as these? Harpley says you monitor their behavior and be prepared to pull them out of work if necessary, with pay and benefits, to do a “fitness for duty” evaluation. Ideally, such an evaluation would involve a physical screening for drugs and chemicals as well as a psychological screening to assess stress level and impulse control. Harpley recommends that assessments be conducted by an outside entity, rather than by an internal employee assistance program, so that they are unbiased.
Work toward prevention
Can you screen out the “bad seeds” at hiring? Harpley is doubtful. “Acting out behaviorally or aggressively is really more a function of stress level, and that can change over time depending on the circumstances,” he says. With only an application and an interview to go by, it is nearly impossible to judge an employee’s temperament and ability to get along. Imagine, for example, a sack of 100 marbles. Ninety-nine are black and one is white. It’s easy to pick out the white one because it stands out in sharp contrast to the others. Now imagine a sack of 100 marbles, all different shades of gray. Picking out the lightest marble would be difficult because there would be no perfect choice. “Life is more like the second sack. I can’t remember the last time I saw a perfect choice,” says Harpley. Difficulties in making an assessment aside, Harpley also sees legal ramifications to denying employment based on such an initial assessment. Attorney Karger, however, doesn’t believe the fear of lawsuits should stop you from gathering as much information as possible to make a safe hiring decision. He recommends doing a thorough investigation. “Don’t take name, rank and serial number for an answer when you’re calling on a reference. Really get into it,” Karger advises. Don’t talk to human resource departments. They go to seminars and are taught to guard against giving too much information. Talk, instead, to first-line supervisors who will understand your need for information. “Oftentimes they’ll tell you about troublemakers or people who threatened other people or who’ve been accused of domestic violence or violence against animals,” he says. Use past behavior as an indicator of future behavior and make educated hiring choices. Beyond pre-hire screening, an employer should provide training to all managers and employees on workplace violence. Harpley calls this “taking down the mask of denial.” Many employers think workplace violence is only something that happens at the post office, but that isn’t true. Harpley says that all workers should be taught the following three types of changes to look for in employees:
Cognitive (thought processes) — These people may be more distracted than usual and lack concentration, attention or memory. “Very often they’re thinking about how someone has done them wrong and how they’re going to get them,” says Harpley.
Emotional — These individuals are more irritable and quicker to anger than they used to be. They may bump into people without apology and have a generally angry mental attitude toward the world.
Behavioral — These people are more withdrawn or isolated than usual. They are likely thinking about acting out.
Workplace violence is generally not a random, spontaneous occurrence, says Harpley. It tends to be methodical and selective. Perpetrators are often looking to get revenge on specific people. Sometimes it’s coworkers who have teased them. Often it’s supervisors or managers they feel have wronged them. Harpley says that employees and managers should be particularly aware of comments and gestures that may indicate an employee is planning to act out. For example, a red flag should go up if an employee says, “I can really understand why those people come into the job and kill people.” Likewise, a worker who simulates a gun with his thumb and forefinger and makes a shooting gesture should be taken very seriously. Though he most likely will not actually shoot anyone, the gesture is a threatening one and should be dealt with immediately.
The danger is growing
Research shows that workplace slayings are the most rapidly increasing form of homicide in the country. Nearly 1,000 workers are murdered and 1.5 million are assaulted in the workplace each year, according to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Why is this number so high and what can we do to prevent its increase? While Karger attributes the growth in workplace violence to the increased level of job stress, Harpley has a different take on the matter. “I think the main reason [for its growth] is that the precedent has been set,” he says. In consultations with workers from all different fields, disgruntled employees have told him that they feel they have no choice but to quit or to go on a rampage. “When they’re stressed, they see violence as a viable option,” he says.
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