To avoid violence on campus, remember your empathy

Some incidents are inevitable, but, as all security guards know, de-escalation is a lot less painful than the alternative, says George Bass

July 5, 2023
The referee calls the fight to a stoppage during their vacant IBF European Lightweight Championship to illustrate Remember your empathy if you want to avoid violence on campus
Source: Getty Images

When I began on the night shift in campus security, I asked my boss a difficult question: what was the procedure if a situation got out of hand and a student took a swing at me?

“You’re a wage packet,” replied my boss. “You cost the university money. The kids bring in money. If two of you are covered in bruises and start pointing fingers, who do you think the higher-ups are going to back?”

I took his point. That said, the higher-ups appear unlikely to become aware of most incidents. A recent study by City, University of London found that students are “reluctant to report violence and harassment, whether through fear of doing so or not being aware of appropriate channels”.

Unless they are doing degrees with criminal justice components, they might also be unsure about what exactly qualifies as violence. Some examples are obvious. Take the rowdy alumni reunion that took place one night in the student bar. The door team kept stopping people who were trying to leave with their drinks – but each one proclaimed (correctly) that they were only carrying empty bottles. By the time we could get backup, four revellers had approached an alumnus with whom they had an unresolved feud and used their empties to assault him.

Much more common, though, are the day-by-day flashpoints that are perhaps inevitable when you combine youthful tempers with student union bar promotions on vodka mixers. Examples include the two flatmates we found bashing lumps out of each other because one had failed to wash out the other’s rice cooker.

Other illicit substances also threaten breaches of the peace. With UK steroid use having increased tenfold over the last decade, we’re always quick to intervene when we learn that someone is being given a hard time by a bloke whose trap muscles are sticking out of his back like handlebars – regardless of whether a threat has been reported. I vividly recall the night we had to hold back a lorry-sized bouncer intent on imposing his own brand of lesson-teaching on one of our sports students, who, in his inebriated state, had seen fit to chuck a glass at his door.

Not all bouncers are overly aggressive of course. I say that as one myself. When I tell people about my line of work, they often ask me what kind of pain I’m allowed to inflict. The answer is none: we’re trained to use de-escalation and preventive measures instead of getting handsy, and we’re only allowed to apply a very limited number of non-painful locks and holds.

So we try to nip potential sources of trouble in the bud. These include those reclusive campus users who seem invisible but who have the potential to fall prey to grooming. As part of my anti-terror training, an ex-police instructor told me that the far right tries to recruit students who feel marginalised. If you’re 18, single, living in halls of residence and unable to sleep for the noise of other people’s parties, you could easily start to think that everyone who’s having fun is your adversary and start to harbour violent fantasies.

This is where housekeeping staff used to work wonders. Pre-austerity, cleaners would let security know whenever they encountered a kid who hadn’t opened his curtains in days or was acting strangely. I can remember one male student who we were told stayed in his room all day watching movies. When we next saw him on his way to the vending machine, we told him that we loved hearing helicopters and explosions whenever we patrolled past his block and he had his window open – had he ever dreamed of being a film director? Within a few months, he’d bought a camera and was running around town with a new friend making videos – whose stunt work he would ask us to critique.

Nowadays, though, there seem to be fewer cleaners around to tip us off. While a £40K saving on the academic side could mean the loss of a single lecturer, in facilities it’s a guard plus a cleaner. That’s two fewer pairs of eyes on the ground.

But staff of all salaries who are worried about violence on campus should be reassured that it happens far less often than you think. Be smart instead of scared. You can always protect yourself by not putting yourself in a vulnerable position.

For example, if you’re a lecturer and want to work out of hours, consider using a hot-desk room close to security. If you ask for a separate building to be opened, especially during the summer holidays, we can’t protect you from every bored schoolkid who might sneak in to cause mischief. That is, unless you front us a load of Fortnite V-Bucks gift cards to offer them as an incentive to disperse – but you probably don’t know what those are.

Alongside common sense, remember your empathy. When I encountered four aggressive trespassers in the car park, all of whom looked like they wanted to take my jaw off, I was able to escort them off the grounds without one cross word or right hook. All this miracle required was three things: looking them in the eye, asking what I could do to help and giving them sympathy instead of just a contact email address.

Perhaps I should have given them a university prospectus, too.

George Bass is a security guard at a UK university.

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