The best way to manage violence is to avoid the escalation of conflict in the first place. But sometimes we have to intervene in violent situations.
Cellini (1994) recommended a seven-step approach to de-escalating or defusing institutional violence through methods that rely on communication skills more than physical force to subdue juveniles. If this process fails, however, staff must take swift action to prevent harm and to stop further violence.
Cellini's seven steps are:
Provide a clear chain of command. One person on each shift must be designated in advance to control crisis situations. It is important to teach juvenile care workers the policies and procedures concerning the chain of command so that they know which staff member is in charge of crisis management decisions.
Remove unnecessary bystanders. The more people in the area, the less likely it will be that care workers can control a violent youth. Additional staff, juveniles, or other bystanders should be removed from the immediate area, removing the audience and minimizing harm to other residents.
Do not re-arouse the traumatic event. It is not advisable to ask violent youth why they are angry or what caused the disturbance. Often, violent youth become more agitated as they begin to explain the situation. The goal is to de-escalate the problem, not enhance the tension. It is also important to separate any combatants. Removing them from the area where the incident occurred helps defuse their anger.
Acknowledge any signs of anger. It is important to acknowledge the youth's anger by making behavioural observations, such as "You sure are angry." The observation makes an aggressor aware of the anger and its effect. This approach tends to calm down youth and helps to turn their attention away from the environment and onto themselves.
Describe your role as protector. Let the youth know that you are there to stop any violent actions or urges. Youth need to know that it is the juvenile care worker's role to protect all youth within the system, even from themselves.
Be aware that loudness does not always indicate violence. The amount of noise that youth make is not always related to the level of aggression. An exception might be someone who has a borderline personality or thought disorder. These individuals often act out with little or no provocation, and the acting out is usually in response to internal thoughts or images that have little or nothing to do with reality.
Be aware of signs of alcohol or drug use. It is important to note any signs of alcohol or drug use among youth. De-escalating a violent scene that involves drugs is much more complicated. When anger and impulses associated with conflict are coupled with the disinhibiting effects of alcohol or other drugs, juvenile care workers must approach youth with extreme caution. This precaution is particularly important for staff who handle admissions to the institution or who are assigned the supervision of residents returning from the community after court appearances, home visits, or special programs.
Violence prevention does not have to be a formal program. It can be a series of interventions with residents that teach and encourage
(a) alternatives to violence, and
(b) connections to the real life consequences of violence.
Even if there is no formal program in problem solving, the effects of adults modeling non-violent responses to conflict and demonstrating strength in controlled but non-violent reactions to conflict are giant steps forward in promoting a non-violent institution as well as developing non-violent citizens.
The success or failure of an institution's approach to managing violence depends on how well its policies and procedures on violence and violence-related behaviours are received by staff and residents. If the messages are clear, firm, and consistent, the institution sets a strong value for non-violence.
This feature: Cellini, H.R. (1994) Management and treatment of institutionalised violent juveniles. Corrections Today, 98, 100.
Acknowledgements: The Desktop Guide to Good Juvenile Detention Practice