At the Frontline: Center for Aggression Management President John Byrnes

Violence prevention expert John Byrnes discusses workplace, school violence and the importance of recognizing signs of aggression

As more and more incidents of workplace and school shootings dominate headlines across the country, security managers find themselves looking for ways to identify potential threats before they manifest themselves into acts of violence.

Often the warning signs exhibited by those responsible for bringing terror to their local communities are not recognized by security. According to violence prevention expert John Byrnes, however, many times warning signs are apparent but security personnel are not looking at the right personality or character traits to discern an angry person from someone committed to carrying out an act of terror.

In this "At the Frontline," Byrnes, who is the founder and president of the Center for Aggression Management, discusses some of the strategies he and his organization have developed over the past 15 years to help combat workplace violence and the tell-tale signs of potential violent persons that security managers need to on the lookout for.

In your opinion, how has workplace and school violence evolved over the years and how have prevention efforts progressed with those threats?

Prior to Hurricane Katrina, I was scheduled to speak at a nurse's association and I had 1,300 nurses that attended my presentation. I asked them to raise their hand if they felt less safe today than they did five years ago and virtually everybody raised their hand. We live in a culture of emerging aggression. We hear more and more about the murder/suicide. We're hearing more and more about this throughout our culture and our community. And our workplace is a microcosm of our community and this is influencing us in our own workplace. This is an emerging issue and we can blame things around us for this, but the reality is that it exists and it's progressive.

There are no prevention efforts in my opinion because if you are using conflict resolution you are reacting to conflict. The reality is we are reacting to these things, not preventing it. The only way to prevent it is to have a continuum. What we have produced is a continuum of aggression that shows aggression from its outset through its ultimate expression in violence. It is only when you have a continuum of aggression that you can actually see aggression coming. It gives you the ability to engage with skills to defuse it and everyone wins. The perpetrator wins because they're not a perpetrator. The victim wins because they are not a victim and they are empowered. And, the organization wins profoundly, because the cost of that grievance to productivity, to legal fees and to all the other things (associated with an incident of workplace violence) is also profound.

What are some of the characteristics that you've identified as being central to the personality of someone who commits an act of workplace or school violence?

What you're asking is how can you profile a school shooter or a workplace shooter? In other words, what kind of characteristics do you look for that might be in place and the reality is that the U.S. Secret Service and the Department of Education did a study to identify a school shooter and... here are two points they make. "The use of profiles is not effective either for identifying a student who may pose the risk of targeted violence at school or once a student has been identified, for assessing the risk a particular student may pose for school-based targeted violence." What they identified and what we've known all along is that what profiling does do for you is that it tells you within a certain group of people there's a higher probability of a shooter. The problem is it does not tell you who the next shooter is, hence the rub.

The study goes on to the second part and this is the key, "an inquiry should focus instead on a student's behavior and communication to determine if a student appears to be planning or preparing for an attack." In other words, it is essential that you identify the emergence of aggression, if you're going to identify a school or workplace shooter. And that has been the basis of our work for the past 15 years.

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