A Knight’s Tale (92: Violence)

By the 1980s violence against public servants was becoming quite a problem.  I had myself been attacked by a disgruntled client wielding a coffee table.  I was prevailed upon to re-enact the scene in an ITV programme on such violence. 

Without giving too many details, I can say that this man made demands concerning a child abuse case with which it would have been wrong to comply. One was that the file on him should be destroyed.

Unfortunately the Team Leader concerned committed me, as Area Manager, to meet the client. Before the subsequent interview I instructed that anything that could be used as a weapon should be removed from the designated room. The heavy table was left because the staff member could not lift it.

Suddenly, silently, the angry man rose to his feet. I sensed what was coming, rocked back in my chair, and kicked away the metal legs aimed for my front. I then rose to my feet and received an onslaught of kicks and punches which I contained to some extent by wrapping my arms around the perpetrator. The Team Leader rushed into the room. From the centre of the melee he witnessed my specs emerging in one of my hands. “Take these, and call the police”, I cried. Just as the punches were beginning to hurt rather too much and I was thinking “I’m going to have to hit him”, he ran out of steam. I counted seventeen cuts and bruises.

I charged him with assault. He received a small fine and an order to pay me £50 compensation, which I refused to accept.

Deciding my staff needed training in the management of these situations, I approached the police for help.  They were unable to provide any.  There was nothing for it but to create my own course.  With the help of my friend Brian Littlechild, one of the Social Workers at the time, a suitable event was planned and carried out.  This was just for the Area team.  My enduring memory of that day is the glee and accuracy with which the secretarial staff role-played their Social Work colleagues.  It was hilarious, somewhat chastening, and informative.  In the early years of my freelance consultancy practice, this course was very much in demand.  Initially Brian continued to partner me, using days of his annual leave.  Eventually we separated and went our individual ways, still remaining very good friends.  Years later, when I sought a similar course for the staff of Stepping Stone Community , Brian recommended a trainer.  The staff found the course stimulating and useful.  They were particularly pleased with the handouts, which they showed me.  Most of the material was what Brian and I had produced.

What we focussed on was scene setting, defusing of situations, and knowing when to get away, rather than self-defence.  It was our belief that most Social Workers were not belligerant enough to carry through specialist holds or other fighting techniques, and therefore more likely to get into trouble attempting to apply them.  There was, however, so much pressure for this element to be included that I approached Eden Braithwaite, a martial arts expert who I knew, to offer a sequence on the subject.  He wouldn’t do it, for exactly the same reasons that I had refused to countenance it.  “Then you are precisely the person that I need”, I replied.  “You will have the authority to make them hear what they will not from me”.  He agreed. The participants did accept what he said, some, I am sure, with a certain amount of relief.

During the morning of the day on which Eden was to present his piece, Brian and I, as usual, during our session on potentially threatening behaviour, had spoken about dark glasses.  If you cannot see someone’s eyes, you cannot determine their mood.  If you need to conceal your eyes, you are preventing the other person from knowing what to expect from you.  The unknown is frightening and will elicit a fight or flight response.  Strangely enough, we had some difficulty getting this concept across.  This was quite a large group containing both men and women, perhaps twenty in all.  When Brian and I returned after lunch, all the men were lined up together.  They were all silent, with arms folded.  All presented fixed features.  We had no idea what they were thinking.  One of them had been shopping and provided them all with dark glasses.  Far from being threatening we found this, as we were meant to, laughter-provoking.  This post-lunch session was much less somnolent than usual, and the group were nicely warmed up for Eden.

The TV appearance mentioned above was not my only one. The next was much more fun, and will feature in good time.


  1. You posted early today, Derrick. The sun’s not even up here! ?
    You have led an interesting life. It sounds like what you came up with for the course was exactly right. There was a plot line in a TV show I watch where a firefighter developed a pilot program to defuse potentially violent situations where police presence might escalate the situation.

    My son-in-law is a psychiatric nurse, and he’s been attacked by mentally ill patients, but fortunately nothing serious. (He’s also a physically fit combat veteran. )

  2. What you relate here reminds me of when I worked at training the mentally handicapped. There was one lady there who I was warned about. I was told if she gets violent to not approach her. She could rip 3-inch phone books in half with her bare hands. One time she looked like she was about to throw a fit, so I warned the supervisor. I enjoyed that job. Most of the people were lovely.

  3. Another very interesting extract from your life.
    This is nothing like the dreadful attack on you; but, I was attacked on a couple of occasions by a seven-year-old girl. Kicking was her usual form and sometimes spitting. It’s surprising how many bruises on shins a seven-year-old can produce.
    She had a violent autistic older brother, and her parents insisted that she too was autistic and therefore treated her as such. The school psychiatrist disagreed and told us that her behaviour was learned behaviour. Eventually, I took part in a twilight session that showed us how to restrain a violent child. Fortunately, she was the only one I used it on.
    I recently heard she had gained a degree and had become a teacher!

      1. She was in primary school at the time and seven years old during her violent phase. By the time she left us, she had calmed down Despite her temper outbursts, she still sought me out if things weren’t going right for her.

        I understand did well in High school.

  4. I’ve had only one ‘encounter’ in the course of my work, and it never escalated to physical violence, despite being rather unnerving. I was in the midst of a sermon at a church in Berkeley when a fellow dressed in military fatigues and wrapped in an American flag rose up from a back pew, stalked to within a foot of my nose, and demanded to know just who the [multiple expletives deleted] I thought I was to be standing up there. Somehow, I talked him into sitting down in a front pew, telling him he needed to listen to everything I had to say. Then, we could have our conversation. He sat down, but before I finished, he got up and drifted out the back door. So much for holding an audience!

  5. I agree, flight is probably the better option, unless you’re the martial arts expert. Very interesting story. And the jib is probably more difficult in today’s environment.

  6. I have been wondering how you have been dealing with stressful situations all your lives and incidents such as those could have happened at a higher frequency. I am glad you turned the uncalled for violence into an important learning module benefitting all concerned.

  7. Wow. You have certainly had the range of experiences in that job, with physical violence being the most frightening. Table as weapon is an eye opener. I am glad the martial arts expert agreed with you and was willing to talk to staff.

  8. One can never tell what to expect! I have been verbally abused in my teaching career, but never physically. That is an encounter not easily forgotten.

  9. Your discussion reminds me of the violence experienced by former colleagues and students who worked in special education. One woman ended up with a broken arm when a student attacked her.

  10. Quite a volatile situation, Derrick. Your agility and physical fitness saved the day. Sad to say, such violent behavior has become a reality here in the US for workers dealing with the public who refuse to wear masks.

  11. Thank you for doing the job you did. You handled it well and you made improvements.
    You did a job few will do…a job that is always demanding and sometimes not safe. 🙁
    I’m so glad you were not hurt seriously!
    I would not compare it to violent or mentally ill adults…but working with children we had some who were very aggressive, angry, and violent. (long stories) So I had to deal with them. I was punched by a few of them.
    I watched the news for years, after they became teenagers, afraid they would make the news for being a school shooter, or hurting or killing someone. 🙁

  12. How terrible that people who are there to help are so often subject to abuse. These days of Covid there have been too many reports of doctors and nurses being abused. And teachers of course.

  13. I remember that day, and it was a heavy table! Well done to you for charging the assailant. In those days it was difficult to persuade social workers to take clients to court.
    It was also rare to include admin staff in training courses, although we were working on the same front line. There was one member of the admin team who was thumped round the head on her first day in reception! I don’t think we had any secretaries though.
    Admin staff in social work teams are a canny lot. A good social worker will talk and listen to them, and use their support. A social worker who thinks s/he knows everything is likely to be missing out.

  14. Oh my goodness! Shame you didn’t do karate as a child that would have shocked him had you laid him out flat on his back! Some people are just too handy with their violence! I’m sorry that happened to you, my brother-in-law’s mother is a social work Manager I hadn’t thought she was in so much danger.

  15. I have read this part with great interest, Derrick. All our staff had to undergo initial three-day training by a licensed trainer, as well as yearly refreshment (only one day). Our certifications were then submitted to the state, as part of our annual re-licensing process. This procedure, however, did not save my husband from an enraged parent who picked up a computer from my husband’s desk and threw it, aiming at his head. Fortunately, he missed. He then stormed out and called about 30 minutes later with apology. His excuse was that he had neglected to take his medication. His sons, our students, were much less violent and much more manageable.

  16. Goodness me! I am dismayed that the police could offer no assistance in helping social workers learn how to deal with such attacks.

  17. Goodness, Derrick. I’m glad you got out of that with only bruises. I imagine you’ve seen quite a few violent people over the course of your work. The course sounded perfect.

  18. It can happen in any business. I worked for many years in student financial assistance. One student, who was angry that her funding had not yet been approved, walked into a colleague’s office, began her rant, and swept the desk clean with her arm. A typewriter and numerous files flew out the window that day. This was in a time whenthings were much calmer than now, and the result was counseling for the student.

  19. It is amazing what you and other social workers have had to put up with. Disconcerting that the police could not help train you. You sound like you have been a pioneer in ensuring social workers were really prepared for the work they do with the risk of so much violence from clients as you call them.

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