RENO, Nev. – Renowned school psychologist and threat assessment expert John Van Dreal opened attendees’ eyes at STN EXPO Reno to the importance of de-escalation techniques and plans for student riders.
While the director of safety and risk management at Salem-Keizer School District in Oregon, Dreal created a system called the Salem-Keizer Cascade Model, a comprehensive, prevention-focused behavioral threat assessment system. He started Tuesday’s lunchtime general session by discussing threat assessment systems objectives.
- Assess threats of potentially harmful or lethal behavior and determine the level of concern and action required.
- Organize resources and strategies to manage situations involving threatening situations that pose a risk of harm to others.
- Maintain a sense of psychological safety, individuals or a group of individuals feeling safe within their own mindset, within the community.
He explained that these factors are unique to the individuals. Van Dreal defined aggression by providing a list of behaviors and where they stand on the aggressive behavior versus the violent aggression chat. All the things before violent aggression are to be expected in the schools and on the bus. Some of these include pushing, slapping, scratching, kicking, etc. Above the line, they are not normal behaviors, he said, including strangling, beating, stabbing, shooting and bombing.
However, some of the items can either be aggressive or violent For example, hitting people with objects can be violent, depending on what the object is. He advised districts to have a threshold for when aggression turns violent and to have a plan in place for when that does happen.
Context and the situation also play a role in the behavior. For instance, Van Dreal asked the audience what it would take to make them a violent person and consider taking another person’s life. Many of the audience members agreed that a threat to their family or children might make them murderous.
He suggested that the question that should be answered is, “Does the situation ‘pose’ a threat,” not “Did the person ‘make’ a threat” He broke down different types of violent situations, such as targeted and reactive.
He said reactive situations are the most common in schools. They’re not personal and are absence of planning. Instead, he said, they are often about something else and come from an elevated emotional state or an instance in which the aggressor feels under immediate threat. There are a lot of triggers that can send someone into a reactive state of aggression.
Meanwhile, a targeted attack could be a school shooting, domestic violence or terrorism. They are not the result of someone going mental or snapping, he shared, and instead result from planning.
Van Dreal went on to describe management strategies, adding the greatest protective factor for youth is a positive relationship with someone in the educational system. He advised all staff to be trained in options-based decision-making.
When we know and understand the risks we face and how to prepare and respond, we are better able to identify, prevent, mitigate and recover in emergencies, he said. Options-based decision-making is all of this, Van Dreal explained, adding that the more you know about risk factors, the more you can prepare with those options and have it scripted in practice.
He explained that situational awareness is also an important skill for school bus drivers to have and noted that everyone needs to be in a relaxed awareness level.
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Van Dreal went into detail on the OODA Loop, and how it can be the start of de-escalation practices. OODA stands for Observe, Orient, Decide and Act. He noted that one de-escalation technique is to interrupt the OODA Loop by doing something the other person would least expect. This includes changing the conversation, asking questions, and creating movement, noise or obstacles.
In conclusion, Van Dreal highlighted the importance of advocating for training and documenting the aggressive thresholds in one’s policy.
Brandon Williams, transportation terminal manager for Cherry Creek Schools in Colorado, and Susan Nowland, the district’s safety and training manager, shared with School Transportation News how they could incorporate these techniques into their transportation trainings.
Williams said some of the response could be incorporated into the district’s in-services training as the information Van Dreal provided was very detailed, structured and useful.
“It’s nice to have a plan,” Nowland said. “He breaks it down in a plan, which will help educate, and people can relate to it better. People need structure, and a good, structured plan would be easily to teach and understand.”
She noted that Cherry Creek teaches crisis prevention intervention, but a definitive plan was never discussed for when certain behaviors happen on the bus.
Williams added that even when looking at a fight on the school bus, he will talk about it with certain drivers on a case-by-case basis, but there hasn’t been a formal training on how to handle it.