How to Survive a Violent Encounter

Michael P. Dallessandro
Posted on April 1, 2005

On March 2, the nation’s pupil transportation community learned with shock and horror how real the threat of violence is on the school bus.

School bus driver Joyce Gregory was gunned down in Cumberland City, Tenn., allegedly by a 14-year-old passenger, while driving her morning route (for more on the slaying, see News Alert). Only days later, it was reported that a school bus driver in Danciger, Texas, was attacked and injured by an 18-year-old man, allegedly high on drugs, who attempted to hijack her school bus.

These incidents and other school-related acts of violence around our country and the world have left school personnel asking themselves the following questions: “Can this happen to me?” and, “what should I do to increase the chances of a positive outcome during a violent or potentially violent incident?”

Safety is illusory
Law enforcement sources and media outlets report that violent crime continues to decline. The federal Centers for Disease Control, however, estimates that one in five high school students nationwide carries some type of weapon either for protection or for aggression. A major labor union that represents school employees estimates that 100,000 students carry a gun to school every day, and approximately 160,000 students are absent from school every day due to fear of bodily harm or intimidation.

Many school employees may have developed a false sense of security. Some believe that school-related violence is limited to areas prone to drugs, gangs or poverty. This could not be further from the truth. School-related violence is not limited by racial or socio-economic boundaries. Simply because you do not work in the stereotypical “inner city” does not mean you are any safer than a school employee who does.

Often, the young people who commit school-related violence mirror the adults who commit acts of workplace violence. Many times, high-profile cases of workplace violence are committed by middle-class, white males who are angry or upset for a variety of issues. Perpetrators of violent acts at school often fit the same general profile.

With these basic facts understood, it is quite clear that any one of us can become involved in a violent situation. Each situation will be different. There will be factors such as drugs, alcohol or a direct personal connection that we may not be able to control. There are, however, some textbook procedures that experienced law enforcement personnel recommend that can increase your chances of survival.

In any situation, individuals who have done some type of planning are always more successful. This holds true in violent situations. The bottom line is that you should look at your work environment with a concerned eye. Like any good defensive driver, you should know your environment and plan your escape route before you need it. The same rule applies to surviving violence.

Take all threats seriously
Before we discuss tips and techniques for surviving a violent incident on your bus or in a school environment, we should review steps to take to avoid getting into that type of situation. Although many violent situations develop unexpectedly or are simply “wrong place at the wrong time” scenarios, others are the outgrowth of escalating situations.

That’s why it’s important to investigate all threats. Whether the threat is student to student or student to employee, you need to take it seriously and work it through to the source. Gone are the days when we could simply say that the person making the threat was just blowing off steam.

This doesn’t mean you should sound the alarm over every little argument, but you need to be alert for escalating conflicts. Stay aware of your surroundings at all times. Most transportation employees travel the same routes every day, so it should not be difficult to spot things that are out of order or not “normal.” Pay attention to strange people or cars at bus stops that could be a problem. If a driver is uncomfortable, advise him or her to drive by and only return when it is safe to do so.

Pay attention to items students bring on the bus. Large items that you have never seen before can contain a weapon. Be alert to the popular “baggy” fashions. This style of dress makes it easy to conceal dangerous items. Also, watch for students who are suddenly very protective of a book bag, duffle or backpack that they normally do not care much about. Report any out-of-character behaviors to the proper school officials.

If in doubt and if your local policies and procedures permit, don’t transport until your concerns are addressed.

Cool heads may prevail
Even if you have done everything possible to protect yourself and the students you transport from ending up in the wrong place at the wrong time, you can still find yourself involved in a potentially violent or life-threatening situation. Remaining calm is the single most important step you can take. In a violent situation, you may only have a few seconds to make potentially life-changing decisions, so you will need to keep a cool head.

When confronted with the potential for violence, always speak in calm, soft tones. Do not be confrontational. It is best to keep space between you and angry, agitated or dangerous individuals. If they feel their space is crowded or threatened, they may act out more quickly, much like an animal who is cornered.

Your listening skills will be very helpful in this situation. Try to avoid doing all of the talking. Many people who act out simply want to be heard and feel that nobody will listen to them. Don’t be another adult or an “official” who tries to stifle their speech or feelings.

In any case, avoid making sudden or unexpected moves. The individual may interpret this as an aggressive move and escalate the situation far sooner than he would have. If for some reason you have to move, tell them you are going to so they know what you are doing. Along the same line, comply with reasonable requests. Being somewhat cooperative can in many cases buy you much-needed time.

Show your human side
People tend to target individuals working in an “official” role such as a disciplinary matter between a driver and student. People can also become angry with school employees because in many cases school districts function as political subdivisions or taxing bodies. This would be the case when a parent is angry with a driver over a bus stop matter.

In the event you are confronted by a violent individual, try to distance yourself from your official role as a school employee and align more with your role as a father, mother, husband, wife or community member. Tell the attacker that you “hear” them and want to “understand” them. Make every attempt to bond with them. The more they see you as a person and less like a cold stranger, the better your chances for survival.

If you have a busload of children, try to secure the release of at least some of them early on. The longer a situation lasts, the harder it is to get concessions like this. Try starting out by asking for the release of the youngest children, pointing out that they are tired, hungry or have bathroom needs. Remember, time can be your ally. The more time you buy, the better your chances for survival.

Don’t try a power play
While you work hard to buy time and connect as a human being, there are also actions that can place you in dangerous territory. Try not to confront the individuals or antagonize them. Asking a would-be attacker if he “feels big and tough because he’s managed to scare a bunch of children” may only make him more angry.”

Also, do not defend the “system” you work for. The person may be angry with the schools, and you need to separate yourself from your employer at that point. Try to avoid comments like “relax” and “calm down.” We have all witnessed a friendly disagreement between two people turn ugly when one of them is told to calm down. You can imagine the effect those words have on an unstable person.

Never try to overtake the attacker unless you are 100 percent sure you’ll succeed. Many situations have had a tragic outcome from poorly launched, uncoordinated counter-offensives.

Worth more discussion
Violence and surviving violence are topics that are worthy of a much more in-depth discussion. Hopefully, this brief article has provided some talking points on how to keep ourselves and our children safe in a school bus environment.

Michael P. Dallessandro is transportation supervisor at Lake Shore (N.Y.) Central School District and a frequent contributor to SCHOOL BUS FLEET.

Related Topics: school bus security

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