My background is not in teaching. It is in journalism and writing, a profession that has taken me around the globe and into harms way as I have been assigned to dangerous places ranging from the streeets of Belfast during ‘The Troubles’ through to conflicts in the Middle East. Yes, I have given lectures but they have almost exclusively been about my chosen calling and again I used to volunteer to take a class in editorial writing at my childrens’ old high school but that’s the sum total of my teaching experience.
And so I was a little taken aback when Dr. Stephanie Shelburne asked me to teach an online Violence Prevention Programme.
“I am not a teacher,” I objected.
“No,” said she, “But you’ve had a lifetime experience in keeping yourself and others safe. And can I remind you that you’ve written a book on the best strategies for surviving an active shooter event. Those experiences actually qualify you to teach a Violence Prevention course.”
The book she referred to is called Be a Hero: The Essential Survival Guide to Active Shooter Events and I was co-author with a British Special Forces Soldier with a foreword by Don Mann of US Navy Seal Team Six. The book deals exclusively and in great detail with Active Shooter events but the course we envisaged only deals with the basic requirements of those responses in line with the excellent Home Security advice “Run, Hide, Fight!”
However I confess I have more than enough knowledge and experience of the other tenets of the course to instruct and I agreed to give it a try. Dr Shelburne then pointed out that before you can teach a course you first have to write it. Ah, I hadn’t considered that but she was not shy in reminding me that I also have the relevant expertise in writing. So that’s just what we did. Dr Shelburne and I were joined by her father Rex who, as a retired city Fire Chief, is emminently qualified and had already written parralel courses on Disaster Management.
The three of us sat down to work out what we had to cover to make our offering the best it could be. Crucially it had to encompass the legislation requiring college students to learn about the spectrum of violence including bullyiing and sexual harrassment and Active Bystander theory which the authorities set much store by. We also have to tell students what laws apply and the nature of the reporting system attached to those laws. They are obliged to learn Active Shooter responses and we also thought it was important to teach students about first response in terms of CPR and Stop the Bleed together with an apprecation of personal resilience in the wake of an event.
We were initially offering the course to a college which runs vocational courses for technicians in the healthcare field. We were aware this would require us to cover relatively new State of California laws in the course. These require all personnel in any healthcare facility which holds patients for more than 24 hours to learn violence prevention strategies.
After a first meeting we did what any group would naturally do in the circumstances and looked at what was already available ‘out there’ to discover that a whole range of courses were and are available. Some were attendance-only in specific localities but the majority were online Violence Prevention classes. Neither did it take us long to realise that many of these offerings are simply box-ticking exercises and expensive ones at that. They tended to be structured as a cheap ‘come on’ course with students soon discovering very expensive bolt-ons to the initial offering were needed to complete their knowledge. Others were cheap, cut to the bone, basic offerings.We were frankly unimpressed with practically all of them and thought we could do a lot better.
We wrote two courses. The first an eight week long offering for students, the second a shorter one for faculty and admin who are also legally required to participate. Importantly we wanted to mould a couple of key skills in and around the knowledge that Federal and State laws require to be learnt. Those were the concepts of Situational Awareness and Dynamic Risk Assessment. They are skills first developed by the military and then tailored by other bodies like law enforcement and first responders. They have even been refined to the specific critical needs of groups like surgeons.
Situational Awareness is essentially the art of being present in the world and aware of your ever changing environment. It requires you to know the best ways to exit a place or building, where important equipment like fire extinguishers are located and to be familiar and aware of body language that indicates a person is suspicious or potentially violent. At first these skills have to be consciously developed but soon become second nature allowing a person to be in a state of relaxed vigilance. Serving service people and veterans generally have it as do folk with law enforcement or first responder skills. Correspondents who have had to be in harms way have it too.
Dynamic Risk Assessment flows from Situantional Awareness and put simply it is the way a person translates intelligence received through their senses into actions that keep them and others safe.
It is our contention that you cannot be a good Active Bystander iF you do not practice some level of Situational Awareness. In terms of the Violence Prevention course we wrote that means confronting students with the single biggest negative force brought to bear on a person’s general safety and that’s cell phone usage. More on that later. The three of us also contend that good Situational Awareness also predicates a best outcome response to an Active Shooter event and that is what we teach.
So in writing the course we lined-up our ducks by making quite certain the students will learn all that is legally required by the Federal and State authorities so that they and their College remain in compliance. Then we added the components we think are vital to successfully glue all the knowledge together into something genuinely useful and life-enhancing for our students.
That’s quite a goal but we think there’s ample evidence to show we have achieved it and continue to do so with each new class. Testimony to this is the overwhelming approval rating from students surveyed at the end of each course. Over 99% of the participants stated they felt more resilient and better able to cope with situations on the spectrum of violence. A resounding vote of confidence which I find gratifying.
Let me explain what I think lies behind this success. The format of the course is a well known one with eight weekly modules each set up with information and reading requirements. There is a discussion forum and there is a weekly quiz to ensure the students have covered all the bases.
Remember I had no real teaching experience and so to find myself instructing online classes was truly a revelation and the most surprising aspect of this was the cohesive power of the discussion forum, which emerged during the progress of the courses. Importantly we framed the discussion topics in a way that student could not garner opinions from online sources and successfully join in the discussion. Put simply it is easier to engage than it is to cheat.
Again we deliberately hold back some information, not compliance required, to reveal during these discussions. For instance I will introduce the concept of the ‘Swarm’ which is best practice for overpowering a shooter and also give classes precise instructions on how to wrest a gun from an active shooter. Similarly advice on sexual attraction in class and some shocking anecdotes arising from the misuse of cell phones in public places are leaked into the discussion forum at appropriate moments.
These carefully planned ‘parcels’ of information are placed strategically in relevant weeks of the course. They could easily be cut and paste offerings but I firmly believe that would lead to an air of staleness that students might sense. To avoid this perception I routinely re-word these parcels of information relying on the same facts but introducing elements of familiarity within the context of the prior discussion in a particular group.
One of the questions we framed for discussion requires students to list their own strengths and weaknesses in relation to situations of potential or real violence, which might present during their working lives. That question absolutely needs some reflection, introspection and self analysis as well as honesty. We quickly observed this question had the effect of galvanising classes into anecdotal exchanges and the exposition of their own life experiences relevant to the subject. As intructors we watched fascinated as moral and philosophical views and those relevant life experiences were exchanged with a candour I have since come to realise can often only be achieved in an online platform.
We observed students admire each other, counsel each other, offer congratulations or commiserations over encounters which were successful or perhaps didn’t work out. All within the context of the study subject. We have witnessed group leaders emerging to organise a class meeting to discuss individual roles and group responses in the event of a major incident on campus. We also read many appreciations of the need to be Situationally Aware and the perceived need to dramatically change their use of cell phones to become aware in line with our important message that a phone should be your servant, you should not become its slave.
As the weeks unfold we also find students become vocal advocates for the efficacy of our course and the need for this instruction. Here’s a recent example of a student replying to a classmate who had also praised the instruction on this course. We have redacted names in the interests of privacy:
"I am getting great information too, in this class, and I think you're right in that it should be a staple of a curriculum, no matter what the chosen major. The earlier we can be coached the better."
And here are favourable comments from two students during the active shooter response phase of the course:
"But I sure do know this, I appreciate all the posts, experiences, stories, feedback and videos that have been shared during this course. It has brought me so much and I will make sure to take all the information with me and apply them to my daily life for a better and safer future. It is better to die fighting then just giving up.
"Thank you so much for putting such an effort on describing methods of self-protection in case of active shooter attack. Personally I am horrified by the idea, that one day I might face it. Honestly, all previous topics and discussions we were conversing about were never something we would want to encounter, but when it comes to lethal weapon, I seriously have shivers in my spine. I will make sure to remember as much as I can of this course, if the day were to come. I sincerely hope though, that it won't".
There are many more examples of this cohesive commentary and of interactions between students, which convey a general sense of having learnt new material in a revalatory way. This is, of course, pleasing and rewarding and during the process I discovered the instructor’s love of disseminating knowledge and at the same time I felt a personal reinvention within myself.
However as instructors we were genuinely surprised and delighted to discover this same Discussion Thread Effect, as I call it, emerged when we came to teach the teachers. The very same adhesive effect between the Faculty and Admin staff of the college came into play. Here’s a senior lecture addressing his colleagues on the Violence Prevention discussion forum in a class held in September 2018. Once again the name has been redacted for privacy:
From all of the responses I've read, I want to say it's an honor and I feel privileged to work with everyone here, because from what I've seen, we are all "Bystander Interventionists". Even with the negative experiences we've had in the past, it seems we'd still be willing to "lend a hand" if needed. This says a lot about us and makes me feel safer knowing we all have each other's back!
Very satisfying to read and once again there are other examples of this sort of positive reaction from ‘old hands’ in the field of education. As I’ve already mentioned I believe this Discussion Thread Effect is tangible and successful. Looking across the piste at other courses we have ascertained that none offer a similar structure where the learning process rests on the foundation of a discussion forum within which any and all views on the topic can be expressed.
More than this the discussion forum allows the student group to get to know each other in a less bridled way than they ever could in snatched conversations between lessons. There is a genuine cohesion with statements of mutual respect, professionalism and a feeling of community all being expressed. In this respect it is my utter conviction that the discussion forum goes far beyond the mere conveyance of information and provides an ideas exchange that allows members of a class to better understand each other, to bond and to build mutual confidence, respect and the basis of an ongoing professionalism.
I have witnessed a class of individuals find common cause as they meet on our discussion thread, I have ‘heard’ them become more confident and I have experienced them coalescing into a community. I believe that is what makes our course stand out as unique and gold standard.
None of this was initially expected by the three of us. We had envisaged providing a first class Violence Prevention education and never dreamt that such a wellspring of cohesion and common cause would be tapped. What we have found may be the basis of a virtuous circle. I have personal experience of the role of community in preventing violence, bullying and sexual harassment. If we can plant ideas of community whilst implanting sound knowledge about Violence Prevention then we are doubling down on a viable, sustainable solution to the problem. I have a dream of instructing trainers to take our model out more widely and begin the hard task of re-seeding these ideas of community, which have been obliterated across huge swathes of society.
There is much work to be done in testing these ideas and theories with some evidence based research but I truly believe our model of Violence Prevention training naturally incorporates a viable program for promoting and instilling the core values of Common Cause, Confidence and Community Cohesion.