By Scott Buhrmaster, PoliceOne Contributing Editor
A slue of recent news reports related to student violence and weapons violations at schools-issued in the wake of the recent anniversary of the infamous Columbine High School massacre-serves as a reminder of the threats you face when responding to school calls. Here are a few key officer safety tips to keep in mind when dealing with students and reporting to schools: Know the layout of the school.
Schools are a maze of hallways, blind corners and one-way entrance/exit rooms that can pose serious tactical challenges. Try to take the time to familiarize yourself with the layout of your local schools, particularly those that may have called for police response in the past. If you've been called to a school that you're unfamiliar with, ask staff about possible danger zones prior to entering.
Remain alert to the hot spots.
In a home, the kitchen can be an armory of easily overlooked weapons. Filled with a myriad of sharp objects and potential blunt impact weapons, these areas warrant special attention. The same goes for certain areas in a school…places like locker rooms filled with sports equipment, art rooms stocked with scissors and other sharp objects and science labs filled with potentially dangerous chemicals. When entering a room, be mindful of seemingly innocuous objects and substances that can be used against you.
Don't assume compliance and respect.
Resist falling into the trap of thinking that just because you're an adult in uniform, you will automatically be respected and your orders will be followed. In some cases, you may find quite the opposite. Treat a school call as you would treat any other. Do not lower your guard…not even a little bit.
Watch group dynamics
When making contact with a student or confronting a problem situation in a school, remain aware of the dynamics of the group around you. Watch for signs that another student or group of students may be preparing to "defend" the person you're confronting or beginning to make a show of "protecting" the person you're confronting by challenging or distracting you. Remove the student or students in question from the mainstream population as soon as possible to avoid stirring up other students.
Resist tactical complacency.
Remember size, age, sex and academic status don't matter. Regardless of the student(s) you are dealing with, remain tactically sound throughout the contact. Even a small-sized, mild-mannered honors student can pose a threat to you if you foolishly let your guard down. You should certainly only use the level of situational control warranted by the encounter but you should not allow yourself to be lax in your dedication to sound officer safety principles.
Do NOT assume that students are unarmed.
Many schools have installed metal detectors to help prevent weapons from entering their buildings, but these efforts are not foolproof. To avoid detection without being forced to be unarmed before and after school, students may hide weapons in areas outside the building. Not only does this allow for access while outside, but it also allows a student to run outside, retrieve the hidden weapon and run back inside-completely disregarding the metal detector-in the event of a free-for-all. Also remember that other objects that may not immediately be defined as weapons can be dangerously effective against you in an attack. When confronting students, be sure to check thoroughly for weapons. Be especially mindful of baggy clothing and backpacks that can hide objects easily.
Be prepared to deal with -- better yet, avoid -- confrontational attitudes.
Saving face and looking cool can be of tremendous importance to students. If your presence threatens to make a student look bad in front of others, he may feel that he has no choice but to stand up to you. Remember that mind-set and avoid being unnecessarily demeaning or disrespectful. Also remember that just the unavoidable fact that it's your job to take that student into custody can be enough fodder to spark a fight. When possible, remove the student in question from public view as soon as possible. You may find that the machismo diminishes when the crowd is gone.
If things look bad, solicit help from staff and students.
If you find yourself facing a brewing confrontation involving a mass of students, see if you can quickly identify a universally respected or particularly persusive staff member(s) or student(s) who can be of assistance in calming the situation. A quick inquiry as to a key teacher or student can yield priceless assistance in defusing a powder keg. Do not assume that the principal or other "top school official" is the best person to use in a crisis situation. It's possible that a respected teacher or peer can help talk down a situation more effectively.
Stay alert for drug use.
Some popular drugs of choice in student circles today can cause severe hallucinations, impaired judgment, reduced pain perception, paranoia and violent behavior. When confronting a student, look for signs of drug use and if you find them, treat the situation accordingly. Be sure to educate yourself on current youth drug use trends and learn about the signs and effects of use, particularly as they relate to your safety during a confrontation.
Watch the parents.
If parents are present at the scene of a school disturbance or after a student has been detained, do not assume that they will support your actions in controlling their son or daughter. Stay aware of their actions towards you and, as always, remained prepared for any kind of confrontation.