Look for non-verbal cues
Besides changes in mood or behavior, Brooks suggests that drivers and other school staff look for more overt indicators of potential violence — such as physical cues.
Body language, such as clenching of the fists and repeated rubbing of the head or hair, can signify frustration.
Also, the removal of clothing like jackets, sweatshirts or glasses can be a signal. “The removing of the articles is a way that human beings tend to try to deescalate themselves naturally and bring themselves down to a calm state. So when they take off something, they’re trying to shed that emotion, trying to get rid of it,” Brooks says.
Gerald Summers, director of safety and security for Evansville (Ind.) Vanderburgh School Corp., points out that paying attention to bystanders is also important — if a student is acting strangely, his or her peers in the vicinity might react accordingly.
Look for verbal cues
Angry or agitated individuals can be likened to people under the influence of drugs or alcohol, according to Brooks.
“I think it’s important that when you’re dealing with people — you’re trying to talk to someone that is getting very emotional, and is about to maybe become violent — you have to understand that their mind is somewhat impaired,” he explains. “That anger is kind of like an intoxicant.”
A student who is angry or agitated to the point of violence might use forced or strained speech when addressing an authority figure. He or she also might refrain from using profanity before losing control — but then switch to inappropriate, provocative language as he or she becomes more flustered.
Parroting or echoing what is said by an authority figure might be another indicator, Brooks says.
“When humans get very upset … they’re not thinking about sentence structure or anything like that,” he explains. “With that sometimes comes what I call ‘parroting’ or ‘echoing,’ in which, for example, the driver says, ‘Sit down,’ and the student just repeats, ‘Sit down.’
“The verbal part of the brain has just basically shut down at that point, and when that happens, that’s a solid indicator that a person could easily turn to violence and lash out in some form.”
Use de-escalation techniques to prevent conflict
So if a student in your bus or classroom does demonstrate any of these signs, what should you do?
Brooks points out that “if you’re talking to somebody, then they’re not fighting you. And that’s the ultimate goal, to prevent the violence to begin with.”
Utilizing active listening techniques will help drivers, aides and school staff to convince a volatile student that he or she is being heard, Summers says. Phrases like “I understand how you feel” and “explain that to me so I can help you” will put the ball in the student’s court, and encourage him or her to think about the situation.
Summers also suggests that school staff offer compromises or options — such as explaining the consequences of the student’s actions under school policy so he or she can make a decision. “Provide options, not threats,” he says.
“Relying on threats and intimidation for resolving a situation will generally garner challenges and power struggles,” Boardman points out. “Most kids and people don’t like to be put on the spot and confronted and backed into a corner, either verbally or physically.”