I have recently been on a day long course that was supposed to equip me with skills and techniques for dealing with aggressive and potentially violent individuals. Needless to say, none of these skills involved learning how to keep a chav in a headlock until the police arrive, that is the type of skills that would be useful. No, these skills are more of a touchy-feely variety, they try not to lessen the self-esteem of the perpetrator, you get the idea. Basically, they are of no use to you once a violent person decides to beat you to a pulp. Today, I will have an opportunity to put some of this newly acquired wisdom into practice.
It’s around noon and the food delivery has just arrived at the Refuge day centre for pseudo-homeless young people. The centre is relatively quiet this lunch time, there are only five or six service users here. One of whom is Terry, a tall well built lad of about twenty, with a serious rage problem as I am about to discover.
Terry isn’t all bad as many of these young people aren’t. At first glance you would dismiss him as a complete yob, and up to a point you would be right. However, Terry has an aptitude for cookery and is amazing in a kitchen at rustling up very nutritious meals with limited ingredients. He has a passion for fish and in particular Caribbean recipes. However, a first glance at Terry and you wouldn’t have him down as a skilled Afro-Caribbean cook, for a start he is white, and dresses in the type of clobber you would more associate with pies, chips and other junk foods. It’s a pity the state couldn’t develop an education system to ensure that the likes of Terry utilised their aptitudes as opposed to turning to a life of crime from a young age, which Terry has.
Terry isn’t too fond of the few rules that we have and was recently banned for a month for openly drinking alcohol in the centre. Today, he decides to eat his lunch in the common room where eating is prohibited and only drinks are allowed. I remind Terry of the rule and he blatantly ignores me and stands in the centre of the common room eating. After about twenty seconds I remind Terry again but this time inform him that if he doesn’t abide by the rules he may find himself banned again for a month. Terry doesn’t like authority or rules (like so many of our youth), and he feels the need to rebel instantly. He becomes very verbally abusive telling me to “f*ck off and leave me alone”. I follow him into the kitchen/dining area.
“Terry there is no need to talk to me like that I am simply reminding you of the rule regarding no food in the lounge, it’s the same for everyone.”
Terry starts to get very agitated and is pacing up and down the kitchen. I stand with my back against the wall awaiting his response. He tells me:
“I told you to f*ck off, get out of the kitchen for your own sake, I’m warning you.”
I am pretty frightened but decide not to capitulate as it would be sending out the wrong message to the service users that the staff will take all kinds of abuse. I stand with my back to the wall and ignore his request.
Terry becomes extremely angry and I can see there is an avalanche of rage accumulating within him. He throws his sandwich at me and screams, not shouts, at me as well as other members of staff:
“Get the fuck out of here. I’ve already told you to go. You better for your own sake.”
I stand my ground and don’t budge. I also look him in the eye as his threats escalate. Very bad move, I obviously wasn’t listening on the course. He flips out and flings some more food about the kitchen.
“I’m going to f*cking kill you! Outside now! If you don’t come outside I’m going to come back at closing time with a crowbar and I am going to seriously mess you up! You f*cking c**t!”
Judging by the look in his eyes and the people holding him back I take his threats very seriously. I decide to put one of the guidelines from the course in to practice:
“Also, since violent impulses are often momentary and fleeting, it can be useful to have furniture between yourself and the service user.”
Instead of placing furniture between me and Terry, I opt instead for a thick wall and a locked door. I am now hiding in the office and Matt one of our male volunteers keeps me company.
Terry is in the kitchen still screaming about what he will do to me when I come out. I can hear dishes being smashed. Agnes and a few female volunteers are trying to calm him down. Whilst holed up in the office, apart from shitting myself, I muse on some of the possible techniques from my recent course I could have used to defuse the situation with Terry. Here is a list of some of them:
“If possible you should be firm, assertive, but fair.”
I tried that one, that’s what kicked him off.
“Let the service user know that you recognise how they are feeling.”
“Terry I recognise that you are in a state of rage, please don’t hit me.”
“Encourage the person to express verbally their feelings.” He is continuing to do that at this moment. I can hear him telling the other staff that he feels I deserve a beating and he will be the one to deliver it. Is now the time for me to leave the office and ask him to express his feelings or should I wait?
“Use the person’s first name as frequently as possible. If the client is projecting their anger against others (e.g. social workers, authority figures) do all you can to let them see you as an individual rather than a role, Tell them who you are. Disclose minor personal details.” If only I had remembered that one as his rage escalated, I could have told him a light hearted anecdote about myself or asked him, “Did you know my favourite animals are ducks, what about yourself?”
“It can be useful to let the person know the effect they are having on you.”
In case you weren’t aware those are my teeth that you just knocked out and are you aware that you are kicking me in the face. Just thought I would let you know, in case you hadn’t realised.
“Avoid physical contact, at least until the incident is over.” I’m glad I remembered that one as I was going to try to hug him whilst he was threatening to bash my head in with a crowbar.
“Avoid sudden sharp movements”. There goes running away.
"If you are going to take physical action (e.g. stand up, walk away, leave the room etc.) let the person know what you are going to do before you do it. In this way you avoid your actions being interpreted as hostile." It is disturbing to think there are people who can construe walking away from a situation as a hostile act.
After a half hour or so Terry calms down and Agnes comes in to the office to see how I am.
“You ok? He has calmed down now.”
“I am a bit shook up I thought he might have grabbed a knife or something he was that enraged. I take it he will be barred for that. It does state in our rules that threats of violence or actual violence will lead to people being barred. I don’t feel I should be the one that issues him with the ban either after what I’ve just been through with him it could kick him off again.”
Verbal threats around here constitute a month’s ban and actual violence a lifetime ban. However, I feel that even threats of violence should lead to a lifetime ban, as it is very difficult to work with people that have physically threatened you in the past. Besides, threats of violence are a form of intimidation and there should be a zero tolerance policy on this.
“Well, whatever you feel is necessary, he does have a problem with male authority on account of his violent father. He is sorry so maybe we should just give him a warning, but if you feel he should barred then go ahead and do so,” states Agnes.
“According to the rules we should be banning him for a month, and if the rules made sense he would be out of here permanently for this behaviour.”
I have just decided that I am going to leave this place within the next two months, as I really don’t feel safe working here. What’s more is that Agnes should be sticking strictly to the centre’s policies and issuing this lad with a ban. By not doing so she is putting her staff at risk of violent, threatening and aggressive behaviour.
Terry gets a month ban and I have to push for Agnes to be the one to issue it as I feel that being the one just threatened I should have the support of management. If I hadn’t been determined and outspoken Agnes would have been happy to have just asked him not to do it again.
Agnes is like so many adults in today’s society that excuse or fail to confront the anti social behaviour of our problem youth and young adults. People of Agnes’s temperament and outlook pervade the education and care system and the youth offending sector. Is it any wonder then that crime amongst young people is spiralling and the behaviour in many of our secondary schools is out of control?