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In many situations, teachers are confronted today with situations which were unheard of only a few years ago. The increasing violence in our schools has endangered the lives of many teachers in numerous ways, and very few teacher training programs prepare teachers with the skills necessary for disarming a student who pulls a weapon, or determining when or if to intercede in a violent multi-student confrontation.
The guidelines which I suggest should not be thought of as extensive or complete preparation for teachers who are confronted with a weapons violation or a hostage crisis in the classroom. Rather these general guidelines are intended to offer some suggestions for the teacher confronted with violence, or the potential for violence. First and foremost, your most important advantage in any potentially violent situation, is your own best judgement. Using your judgement, and when appropriate, the guidelines below, you may be able to reduce your personal risk, and increase the likelihood that your reactions to potential violence in the classroom will appropriately resolve the situation without harm to anyone.
Several guidelines may assist you in preventing violence and/or avoiding direct involvement with violence elsewhere in the school. First, teachers should be sensitive to the mutterings and whispers of potential confrontation. Weather potential violence is related to a gang confrontation, an aborted drug deal, or merely personal animosity regarding a date last weekend, students often hear of potential violence before it occurs. Many times fistfights between high school kids are "scheduled" so that others can watch. A challenge has been issued, and other kids have heard of it. In today's world, you as a teacher should attend more vigorously to such rumblings.
Next, alert the principal. No school personnel should confront such a situation alone. The principal may ask you and other personnel to assist him or her to prevent the episode. Use other professionals for support. In many cases, the presence of authority figures will preclude any violence. However, as an authority figure in the school, you must realize that some hostile acts will be directed against you, simply because you are an authority figure.
Next, teachers in some departmentalized schools can take a step against violence by prohibiting bookbags in the classroom. Weapons are much more easily concealed in a bookbag than in a notebook. If students have lockers in the hallway for storage, bookbags can be left there, and only notebooks and texts allowed in the classroom. This may seem to be reaching a bit, but teachers who have seen a 38 caliber emerge from a bookbag in the classroom would not think so. This measure may tend to reduce the likelihood of weapons related violence in your classroom. Also, some hostage situations in public schools have taken place in the classroom, and this may help prevent those situations.
Next, if practical, leave doors to the hallway open during class. It is possible that, as a situation develops in your classroom, a passing teacher or student can alert someone else in the building to provide assistance.
However, if you hear gunfire from somewhere else in the building, you should immediately shut your door and let no students in or out until you are informed that the situation is resolved. You should not send a student to inquire about the gunshots, nor should you go. Obviously, you may walk into the middle of an uncontrolled situation.
Your best efforts may not prevent a weapons violation in your own classroom, and you should have some idea concerning how to respond. If a weapons situation develops there are only a limited number of possibilities. In increasing order of importance, these include possible negotiated disarming of the student, the development of a hostage situation, or physical injury resulting from a weapons confrontation. As the teacher, you were probably not prepared in your preservice training for any of these situations, but you may find yourself dealing with them. If the student has not threatened you, other students, and not pointed the weapon toward anyone, a hostage situation has not yet developed. Your goal should be to attempt to restrict the further development of the situation; try to limit the situation to the possible negotiated disarming of the student, by yourself or the principal.
If the student does indicate an intent to do harm, such as pointing a weapon or threatening someone, you must remain calm. Obviously, that is very difficult to do, but panic will not clarify the situation, and may exacerbate it. As frightened as you are, you must realize that you are the person who is most likely to be able to remain calm. If possible, notify the principal's office immediately.
Next, speak to the student or students with the weapon, and assure them that you want to talk with them about the problem, but you must first attend to the educational needs of the class. Inform the remainder of the class to take their books and go to the library. Do not say the "Principal's office," since that may hold negative connotations for the student with the weapon. Some teachers may even be level-headed enough in that situation to actually make an assignment for the other students to do in the library. To some students who have pulled a weapon, this will seem a reasonable request. If, however, the student with the weapon objects, merely have the other students sit quietly in their desk. You should prevent, at all costs, any student without a weapon beginning to condemn the student holding the weapon.
Next, you should go to your desk and sit down. This action can indicate that you are calm, and also has the advantage of placing some furniture between you and the student with the weapon. Do not come between the student with the weapon and the exit.
Next, you should ask the student if you two can talk without he or she pointing the weapon at you. Assure the student, by both sitting down, and by a calm voice, that you do not intend to approach them. Ask the student to consider other options to getting his or her needs met, and ask if you or others at the school/home can help.
These few guidelines should not be mistaken for extensive training. However, if these guidelines allow you, as the teacher to reach some balanced equilibrium with the student, then you have calmed the situation down during the initial danger period. It may be possible for you to excuse the class, and remain with the student alone. By non-threatening actions, and a calm voice, you may also be able to control the situation and, perhaps request that the student hand you the weapon.
At this point, however, an overt hostage situation may develop. In that case, you should move back from involved interaction with the student and let the police hostage negotiators manage the situation. You must realize that they have extensive training whereas you do not. After a student points a weapon toward you, an overt hostage situation has developed. Your general rule of thumb from that point on is to speak to the student only when asked a direct question. Again, speak in a calm voice, and offer reassurances whenever you can. Your goal at this point should be to not "Come between" the student and the hostage negotiator who, hopefully, will soon appear on the scene. You do not want your relationship with the student to get in the way of the hostage negotiator's development of a relationship.
There are a number of things which you should not do in a hostage situation. It is unwise to confront a student with a weapon, and/or to approach the student. Either of these actions can be seen a threats. Approaching a student with a weapon and daring he or she to pull the trigger, makes for interesting theater in Hollywood but should never be attempted in the real world, no matter how well you think you know the student. A weapons situation in school is not the time for false bravado! Likewise, while you seek ways to be empathetic, you should not promise the student a successful resolution to the problem. Such promises are not within your power to make, and the student may react quite negatively. Rather, you can indicate that you will help whenever you can. You should know that most hostage situations, if they get past the initial formation of the hostage situation, are resolved without overt violence. That knowledge can help calm you, in what is obviously, an extremely stressful situation.
If gunfire or knife-injuries take place and the police have arrived outside, your wisest course of action is to hit the floor immediately. Explosions of tear gas may also announce the rescue attempt by the tactical team. The room will quickly fill with tear-gas and trained police officers. Your goals should be your own safety and the safety of your students. You should instruct all of the students to hit the floor and remain still. Remain still until a police office picks you up off the floor; do not stand up simply because you believe the situation is controlled. Listen for the commands of the trained police officers, and obey them. Most of all, stay out of their way. You should realize that the police will probably handcuff everyone in the room, at least until they establish what has happened.
I have never personally confronted a weapons violation in a classroom. However, these guidelines have been prepared based on extensive experience with students with behavioral problems, workshops with others in the field, and with the assistance of trained police hostage negotiators. Again, all of these guidelines are merely guidelines, and no two weapons situations are similar. There are situations where these guidelines are not the best course of action. Again, your own best judgement is your best alley. Your judgement, coupled with these guidelines, should assist you in getting through this very difficult situation.
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