I helped out in an RA training exercise today. It was fun, and it really showed me what these RAs need a lot of help with.
I set up a room to look as though one roommate had strewn the other's stuff all around, generally trashing the poor guys half of the room. Then, two of us acted as the roommates when the RAs came in to respond to his call. It didn't help that they came in with expectations for the training, but that's not a good excuse.
The first pair of RAs to hit our scenario did fairly well. They separated us right away, seeing that this was the sort of situation that could easily become volatile. I was the roommate who had done the trashing of the room, and they went ahead and gently insisted that the roommate wasn't just messy or drinking, as I told them. Eventually, I admitted that I trashed it to get back at him for stealing my girlfriend. They said they would set up mediation and separate us for the night.
They did make a few mistakes, such as allowing for the possibility that we'd still be in the same room that night, but a few subtle hints, such as saying "I want that bastard out of here," let them know that they should figure something else out.
The next pair did very little right. They kept both of us in the same room, within easy lubging distance. We were standing, which is psychologically more aggressive and physically more conducive to an attack. I even kicked over a chair to give them the idea that they should separate us. They didn't get the hint. They did, however, suggest very quickly that we should not share the room that night.
They also were so situationally unaware as to not notice me in the room right away, which put the other actor within inches of me for long enough to let the situation explode. I don't think they attempted to make any determination about who was at fault until I admitted to it and said he deserved it.
The third pair was possibly the worst, though they did some things right. They did acknowledge my presence, and they made us sit down. However, they allowed me to control the situation by sitting in a position where I could choose when to face anyone, and could easily turn my back without moving my chair.
The worst thing, though, was that they repeated the fact that I was claiming the other guy was just messy as though it were true. In fact, they even told him that he should promise to be cleaner if I would promise to be more respectful. There were drawers tossed around, his linens were on his desk, his pillow was in a doorway, and there was a chair entangled with his bed, among other things. Messy and deliberately trashed are different. I set up the room to be certain there would be no doubt. I kept everything on one side of the room, leaving my side pristine, and made sure nothing was quite how it should be on his side. Even the most basic observational skills would have indicated that this was not some kid's mess.
They also wighted the psychological atmosphere of the room, with both of them nearer to him. Since they were putting up a front of being on his side in that respect, while taking my side in the repitition of statements, they alienated both sides. While the sitting was psychologically calming, and they were the only group to attempt to control our language, they really were inviting more hostility. Especially when the other guy jumped up as though he was going to hit me. He was within lunging distance, and they didn't even flinch when he jumped up. They also did not say they would arrange for separate accommodations until I demanded he get out of the room.
Overall, I'd have to say that I'm disappointed by all sorts of things. Only the first group seemed to have any real grasp of the situation, and the second group did nearly everything wrong (and was the most experienced group, to boot). They didn't seem to get the basics of limiting risks. Any situation with a threat of violence (and a trashed room definitely invites that possibility) should be dealt with by first separating the hostile parties.
I'm most upset, though, by the lack of situational awareness. They didn't really take in the details of the room or what I was saying. I specifically said things that would not mesh with the story he was giving. "When I came back after going home for the weekend..." "Hey, I couldn't have done it. I was in class." They couldn't seem to grasp the idea of putting barriers between the two aggressive individuals. And they couldn't tell the difference between messy and intentionally trashed.
When entering a potentially hostile environment, survey the terrain. Do not put a potential hostile in the best terrain if you can avoid it. This means that you should step between him and items easily used as weapons. You should also keep him out of your escape route.
While surveying the terrain, spot visual clues as to the nature of the situation. If you are entering a room in which there has been recent violence, even if it's not directed at any person, you should exercise particular caution.
If someone's story doesn't add up, you do NOT have to tell him you believe him. It is perfectly acceptable to say that you'll look into his claims, but that you aren't allowed to take sides. In the case of general encounters outside these situations, you can tell someone that you'll look into what they are saying, and consider it.
If you find two people arguing loudly and can't tell who is in the right, you should split them up or not get involved. You should try to get both stories, and try to objectively determine whose story seems to be the truth.
Do not, however, allow your focus to be so entirely upon one or both people that someone else could step in or that you miss the chance to survey the scene. You are putting yourself at risk.
Keep yourself at the ready. There is no reason to be so damned careful not to escalate a situation as to not be ready when it does escalate. I kept my hands up at chest level or face level while talking to these RAs, and they didn't even flinch or move their hands up an inch. While I don't expect them to know much about defensive tactics, it is fairly instinctual to prepare for self-defense, and they were denying that instinct.
Most of all, don't try to do anything by a set of rigid steps. Every situation is fluid, and you should be able to move through everything with some general knowledge and instinct.
I don't know if this will be useful at all to any of you readers out there, but I felt like writing it. Sorry if you trudged through it and found it useless.