In the world of professional Safety and Security, few scenarios offer such a wide variety of situations and individuals as that of a college or university campus. The statistics around underage drinking and drug use, domestic and sexual violence, and mental health all show that these communities of young adults are potentially volatile and sometimes dangerous mixing pots.
With this information in mind, the role of unsworn Safety and Security officers (and especially those employed by private institutions) becomes both more critical and more difficult to define.
I was recently invited to teach a Defensive Tactics workshop at Thomas College, during which these challenges and themes took center stage. I called upon my good friend and communications expert, Jamie Governale, to elevate the training. Together with Thomas’s Safety & Security Chief, Chris Santiago, we set out to create a training program that addressed the challenges of community guardianship on a private campus.
- You possess a position of authority, but no weapon of enforcement
- Your image is of disciplinarian, but your first objective is students’ safety
- You should be proficient with physical control techniques, but you may never require them
- Your most common call will be students who have locked themselves out of their room, and people will look to you first if there is a school shooter at large.
In order to organize and shape our content, Jamie and I spoke at length with Chief Santiago about the daily challenges of campus security and his goals for this training session. Chris’s long history in Safety and Security, his past as a police officer, and his current role as Chief, made him the perfect expert consultant to help us develop a curriculum that offered high-impact training and a wide range of scenario exposure. After hours of careful research, consultation, and numerous revisions, we had finally designed a four-hour workshop which we split into two distinct parts. Part one dealt with voluntary compliance and verbal de-escalation through a communication process called LAST, and part two focused on physical strategies for officer and community safety in escalated situations.
During our many conversations, Chris often used the phrase “community guardianship” in describing the role of campus security at Thomas. I felt it was the perfect way to describe the servant-leader philosophies I have come to recognize throughout his personal and professional conduct. To serve the community, you must first be part of the community. To be part of the community, you must build meaningful relationships with its members.
In this spirit, our first topic after introductions and a round of ice-breaker questions was “connection.” The philosophy behind this starting point was a simple one - it is inherently easier to build relationships in a positive and relaxed environment than it is in the midst of a crisis scenario. Similarly, the process of making a connection is far simpler than it may initially appear. By making an effort to smile, offer assistance, or make a casual joke, Campus Security officers can diffuse the façade of authority and make a more personal and meaningful connection to those in their community. Learning names and creating conversations around common interests (Cohen and Bradford, 2017) are basic and friendly interactions that go miles toward ensuring positive associations and opinions.
Beyond forging friendly and productive relationships, these steps also make it easier for Safety and Security officers to complete more challenging and critical tasks. Allowing them to, for example, quickly identify non-community members, locate a specific student’s Community Advisor, call a parent or outside resource, or conduct follow-ups after a crisis.
In short, meaningful connection is the first and last step to every productive relationship and is especially important amongst those unsworn safety officers charged with college-community wellbeing.
From the subject of communication, our training then moved into strategies for voluntary compliance and de-escalation during crisis scenarios. To ensure these strategies were memorable during a high-intensity situation, we used the acronym LAST, which stands for Label, Ask, Suggest, Tell.
Labeling is a simple negotiation tactic that is useful in both positive and negative situations, and its execution is just as easy - label the emotion you see or perceive.
We offered Thomas College’s Safety and Security team notecards with the primary negative emotions on them: Anger, Sadness, Fear, Anxiety, etc., and asked them to split into groups of two for a role-playing exercise. One partner played the student (emotion) role, the other partner played the part of the campus officer who would label the emotion.
This fast and easy exercise proved both fun and enlightening, and numerous participants reported increased confidence and clarity around the emotional scenarios they encounter regularly.
We then moved to the second phase of our acronym, the A, meaning “Ask.” The next step in successful de-escalation is to ask clarifying questions and genuinely listen to the answers (Squirrel & Frederick, 2020). The benefits of this phase extend beyond the Security Officer acquiring a detailed understanding of the situation, namely in the true magic that happens around negative emotions when they are labeled; they dissipate and lose their power (Voss, 2017).
To this end, we handed out cards with examples of open-ended clarifying questions, both informational and situational in nature.
- What’s your name?
- What dorm do you live in?
- You seem angry, can you tell me more about that?
- What’s going on?
- How can I help?
The Safety and Security team then returned to their role-playing groups to practice the first two steps together.
During this round, participants learned that accuracy in labeling is less critical than following the label with a question. For example, if participant one said, “Josh, you seem sad,” to which participant two replied, “No, I am very frustrated,” the ultimate objectives of the process had still been achieved. The Safety Officer had a better understanding of the situation, and the person in crisis felt seen and understood. Participants concluded, as we hoped they would, that Label and Ask should pair together and repeat until the desired connection and understanding is achieved.
It is important to note that questions should always be genuine and authentic. Participants were encouraged to seek the following two qualities:
- Do you authentically want to know the answer to the question?
- Might you be surprised by the answer given? (Squirrel & Frederick, 2020)
In our discussion regarding the answers people give in stressful situations, Chief Santiago added his insight, "People do not lie. They tell the version of the story that puts them in the best light."
As a campus safety officer, it is very possible to have another call waiting for your response. Once we understand the scene, we can begin making recommendations on how to resolve the issue.
In the course of our consultations with Chief Santiago, it became clear that campus safety officers often have additional calls or responsibilities to address after the ongoing situation is resolved. Therefore, it is important to keep the de-escalation and resolution moving in a positive direction. Once they understand the scene, they should begin making recommendations for resolving the issue. Enter step three, S for “Suggest.”
Suggestions should build on the previously established connection and understanding by offering productive steps for ending the crisis. Leading questions or statements utilizing connective phrasing like “Let’s…” or “Why don’t we…” can provide clear steps for individuals without infringing on their voluntary decision-making.
At this stage participants in our Thomas College training were then provided with a card containing sample suggestions like:
- How about if you start heading back to the dorm?
- Let’s unlock the door.
- Let’s call the CA on duty.
- Who is a good person for you to talk to or meet with later?
- Let’s go to the medical office.
Upon returning to their role-playing exercise, we asked them to form groups of three this time. This secondary officer was jokingly but effectively described as Spiderman’s “Guy in the Chair,” or in security terms, the “Cover” to the primary officer who is the “Contact.” The benefit of this added participant was that it simulated working with other members of the Safety and Security team while keeping the learning exercises fresh and engaging. Building on our blocks of communication, scenarios now included: emotion, location, and situation, while the role-play included the student, the officer, and the “guy in the chair” teammate.
Our final step in teaching LAST was the T for "Tell" phase.
Tell utilized the same idea as the Suggest phase, but is more applicable in higher-intensity scenarios where the need to exert an authoritative presence is much greater - a physical altercation, for example.It is important for unsworn safety and security officers to note two things at this phase.
First, if the situation calls for it, there is nothing wrong with beginning at the “Tell” phase before moving into the other steps of LAST. Like in the graphic, you are at the center of the situation. You have the responsibility to control it in order to keep everyone safe. Sometimes that will mean separating people or instructing individuals to “sit” or “freeze.” It is also your responsibility, in these situations, to bring the situation back to the connection-based principles and casual tone that de-escalate the situation further.
Second, because unsworn officers do not carry weapons, do not hold the authority of sworn police officers, and are often the only one on-site or even on-duty, it is critical to prioritize your own safety.
If there are 250 people in a room, and there is a report of someone in the crowd with a small amount of alcohol, it is acceptable for you to get a description and wait outside until they emerge. Part 2 of our training focused on physical positioning, but it is impossible to discuss one without the other if a crisis has escalated to the “Tell” phase. Be aware of your scope of practice, your surroundings, and what risks are too great for you to endure.
Participants were once-again asked to form groups of three and practice the steps of LAST all together, including Tell. Another suggestion card was provided, which included guidance on the delivery - namely, that any told instruction should be clear, simple, and precise. Action words like sit, stand, and freeze were best in these situations because they are easy to understand and comply with.
Chief Chris Santiago then provided his expert instruction on decision-making procedures and the team’s scope of practice. Chief Santiago explained that a large part of making impactful decisions is knowing your parameters. Policies and procedures exist to inform unsworn officers of their duties and responsibilities and protect them from situations beyond their authority. For any member of an unsworn security force, it is critical to know your policies by heart, as they will guide you in the best way to serve your community, whether that involves mediating a scenario personally or calling for help in the form of a counselor, parent, police, or EMS.
When asked for key takeaways from the LAST training and exercises, the Thomas College Safety and Security team reported increased clarity and enthusiasm around their role and responsibilities, both before and during crisis scenarios. Participants mentioned feeling more confident in their abilities and excited about the opportunity to be a force for good on campus.
- END PART 1 -
Part 2 of this series will describe and detail the community guardianship scope of practice and the physical defensive tactics appropriate for Unsworn College Campus Safety and Security Officers.
Part 3 of this blog series will focus on the Paradox of Safety - Members of every small private college believe they are living in a "Safe" place. However, 1 in 4 female undergraduate college students experience rape or sexual assault through physical force, violence, or incapacitation (RAINN, 2022).
The Paradox: If all female students at ABC College, are also a part of the larger group of all female college students nationwide...Then it is mathematically impossible for ABC College to NOT be an integrated part of the larger statistic.
Cohen, A. R., & Bradford, D. L. (2017). Influence Without Authority. Wiley.
Squirrel, D., & Fredrick, J. (2020). Agile conversations: Transform your conversations to transform your organization. IT Revolution.
Tidd, J., & Bessant, J. R. (2018). Managing innovation. John Wiley & Sons.
Voss, C. (2017). Never split the difference. Cornerstone.