Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

April 6, 2007

SWAT team prepares bus drivers for danger

By GREG JORDAN

PRINCETON — School bus drivers deal with traffic, bad weather or misbehaving students almost every day, but Friday they had lessons designed to help them deal with situations that hopefully will only happen in their nightmares.

Mercer County’s school bus operators met at the Mercer County Technical Education Center for lessons from West Virginia State Police and the Mercer County Sheriff’s Department S.W.A.T. team. The half-day sessions were created to help drivers cope recognize and respond to dangerous signs exhibited by students and others.

“We’re basically giving the bus drivers a training course that’s for us and the bus drivers as well,” said sheriff’s department Detective R.M. Combs. “They can see what it would be like in a hostage situation or if they had a subject barricaded on a bus. We’re exposing them to this atmosphere so they will know what to expect and what they can do to help us.”

After each session, the bus operators would board either an older model school bus or one of the new buses the school system acquired this year. Then S.W.A.T. members would explain what they attended to do and demonstrate a boarding operation.

During a break between sessions, Sheriff’s Lt. A.D. Beasley said that bus operators were not being trained to handled crisis situations by themselves. The goal was to teach them how to react and keep the situation from escalating until officers could arrive.

“What I’m not trying to do is make those people hostage negotiators,” Beasley said. “We want to show them how to handle a situation until we arrive.”

The first step is to remain calm. In crisis situations, bus drivers and aides must realize that they are not in control, Beasley said. Even in the best situations, it can take negotiators hours to resolve a crisis without sending in S.W.A.T. officers. Officers knew of situations in other parts of the country that took up to eight hours to resolve.

“The only thing you have control of in this sort of situation is your emotions,” he said.

If an armed and upset student or an intruder such as an irrational parent takes control and wants to talk, then listen, officers advised the drivers. Performing “active listening” is something everyone does most every day, Beasley said, especially if the person talking is upset or excited. Then the listener is simply adding a comment or two to indicate continued interest, but the speaker is allowed to keep talking.

And there are times when the subject causing the crisis “gets silent,” Beasley said. “Use that.”

All the time the subject stays quiet is more time for law enforcement to arrive on the scene.

“Keep talking as long as they are talking. If they shut down and keep silent, then be silent,” he said.

S.W.A.T. exercises are fun to watch, but “believe me, you don’t want to be part of a real one. Stay calm, control your emotions, and wait until we get there,” Beasley said.

Director of Transportation Michael Weeks said Friday’s session would be part of ongoing training for bus operators.

“We need to be sure that we use our resources and experiences as best we can,” Weeks said.

— Contact Greg Jordan at gjordan@bdtonline.com