Fear of a shooting at my job is becoming debilitating
October 30, 2018 12:45 PM   Subscribe

I am a public librarian whose desk is right inside the front door. I am often the one in charge who has to deal with conflict and asking difficult patrons to leave and I am increasingly afraid one is going to come back and shoot me.

Ever since a friend of mine was shot and permanently paralyzed a block from our library a couple of years ago while I was working I have had some elevated stress from working there. Several incidents over the years in which I was responsible for dealing with aggressive patrons have continued to make me feel stressed but I have managed to override it because I adore serving our unique community.

Lately however, I have found it difficult to come to work without feeling anxiety about a potential shooting or attack.Every time I have to deal with a difficult patron I go through the cycle of it again. I have taken the steps in terms of training that I could in order to abate this but recently it has ramped up to the point where I am having more difficulty feeling safe where I work. I cannot envision other viable steps I could take to increase any feelings of safety at this location. I’ve already taken active shooter training.

Frankly, right now the political climate has me a bit of a mess. I used to have a diverse clientele but it seems that most of the people still out and about in my neighborhood are white folks, many of them men with mental health issues.

I am very fortunate to have this job. I have chronic pain and can only work part time. I am 53 years old. This job pays well and gives me insurance and a pension. Just quitting and finding something else seems an unrealistic proposition but I do fantasize about it. Please advise.
posted by Jandoe to Human Relations (18 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
This seems really stressful! One thing to keep in mind is that you can take steps to finding a new job before quitting this one. Update your resume, put some alerts on LinkedIn and Indeed, reach out to your network. Then start applying to jobs that seem like a good fit.

Also, standard AskMe suggestion—a therapist could help with this.
posted by radioamy at 1:05 PM on October 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Can you search for another position in the same pension system? I agree that just quitting seems like a tough way to go, but you can also make progress towards a more gradual, practical move.
posted by Rock 'em Sock 'em at 1:07 PM on October 30, 2018 [6 favorites]

Have you talked to your supervisor about this? I think it's fair to expect this responsibility to shared among your coworkers. (Thank you for what you do! Public librarians are the warrior caste of our profession, as far as I'm concerned.)
posted by orrnyereg at 1:08 PM on October 30, 2018 [29 favorites]

Talk to other people, maybe coworkers, about it, if you haven't. It isn't a solution, but may let some of the air out of it. Fears like this can be made worse by the feeling you have to pretend nothing's wrong.
posted by Smearcase at 1:09 PM on October 30, 2018 [3 favorites]

+1 what orrnyereg said.
Speak to your supervisor (if you haven't already). You may need some new security strategies at your library - this shouldn't all fall on you.
Apart from the fear of a workplace shooting, dealing with "difficult patrons" is very stressful, and you sound like you need more support there.
posted by pantarei70 at 1:11 PM on October 30, 2018 [8 favorites]

Is there any way to move your desk so that it better protects you? My local public library recently rearranged the circulation desk by the front door to give them better line of sight and for the staff to feel safer.
posted by jillithd at 1:13 PM on October 30, 2018 [11 favorites]

When I worked at a library, we had a panic button installed under the desk. I don't think I ever had to push it, but it did make me feel safer. Is that an option at your workplace?
posted by zoetrope at 1:18 PM on October 30, 2018 [14 favorites]

This is definitely something to bring up with your supervisor and coworkers. They may not realize the situation you're really in right now. You all can brain storm and develop a better system for dealing with patrons who potentially pose a threat. Your library is not the only one that deals with this, so you can also look into how other libraries handle similar situations and what their security protocols are. There are a whole host of options that don't involve quitting (some of which have been outlined above). Another possible option - is this library part of a library system? Would transferring to another branch be possible for you?
posted by acidnova at 1:25 PM on October 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

Traumatic events, impact everyone not just the person who was hurt. There are resources available to you, and feeling the way you describe isn't uncommon. (If you live in the Chicagoland area and would like referrals for individuals impacted by community violence, please memail me) .

The thing is that your symptoms are treatible. A medication or therapy could really help you process what happened to your friend and what it means to you. And how safe you feel in your community.

There are practial things that can be done in your workplace, there are always things that can make you safer. But, there are also ways to learn to cope with anxiety and ruminating thoughts as well.
posted by AlexiaSky at 1:27 PM on October 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

Hello fellow Access Services Librarian! I too spend most of my day being the first and most visible member of library staff near the front door and am also the person who has to say "No" or enforce policy most of the time.

You definitely need to have a conversation with your director. Given that you work part time, I assume that you are rarely the Librarian In Charge (most senior/highest ranked) staff in the building. Unless your job description includes you being ~the~ listed frontline enforcement staffer, then those above you should really be the ones to make the removal calls. My job has that stuff on me, so I tell my front desk staff to get me for difficult patrons - that's why I earn the biggish bucks.

After a patron was murdered in another MA library, our Trustees (headed by an ex-cop), insisted that all staff carry panic buttons. While many staff dislike them, I have to admit that they are useful. Talk to your supervisors about having a panic button THAT GOES STRAIGHT TO THE COPS either installed at your desk or be issued to staff. You really want to cut out the middleman here and avoid the 'panic -> library director -> building manager -> security firm -> maybe then cops' chain. You want a button that can summon cops in five minutes. This is not just for you, but for all your patrons.

Speaking of the police, how often do they do walkthroughs? If rarely, then that needs to change, especially if you're in an environment frequented by people who may behave erratically. Again, this is a problem for your director/trustees to solve. Start the conversation on a positive, assuming they're on your side note: "Since we want to ensure that the library is a place where all can come and feel safe to broaden their horizons, etc etc etc..."

Also, the police should be keeping you up to date on the various local characters that may haunt the neighborhood. You probably have a mental list of these people as well, so they should be interested in this information. I admit I dislike how much I brought up the police in this situation, but seriously, this is their job.

Look into the physical layout of your desk in relation to the door. Why is it there? Does it need to be there? If it is a set service desk, you might not be able to have it moved, but if it's there because back in the day people wanted to chase after book thieves, it should be moved. Even the most expensive Stamp Guidebook is not worth risking staff safety. If the policy regarding dealing with problem patrons/theft/emergencies is not spelled out, then it needs to be ASAP, even to the point of bringing in the union if you have one (and you probably do, even if they have no footprint in the library proper).

Good luck! Be sure to document your concerns and share them with your director/supervisors. I know you are stressed and there is a danger of falling into a 'what about...' panic spiral but as the person almost literally holding the door, this is your area of expertise and they should listen to your concerns.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 1:29 PM on October 30, 2018 [42 favorites]

It occurs to me that you are probably experiencing PTSD, and trauma-directed therapy might be very helpful. This is usually a time-limited and focused treatment that is quite effective. Are you covered by the library's health plan? Is there a resource for employees that can assist you in access to benefits? Many employers have third-party partners that advocate for employees with eldercare or mental health needs, which are shielded from HR and should be noted in your employee handbook. I know you don't want to do anything to jeopardize your job, and if this is available it could be a helpful tool.

I also agree with the above comments that focus on reducing your exposure and the actual risk to front-line employees in public spaces. Libraries have an extremely diverse population of visitors and a responsibility to be accessible, complicating the circumstances about providing a safe work environment. Your library's administration should take your safety seriously. That alone, though, will probably not be enough to bring you emotional relief, and I encourage you to investigate appropriate therapy.
posted by citygirl at 3:29 PM on October 30, 2018 [4 favorites]

At the library where I worked, we had a staff training on what to do if there was a gunman (it was part of a larger emergency prep session). Is a training like that a possibility for you? It might be reassuring, if you know that you could do XYZ if there was an emergency.
posted by The corpse in the library at 4:22 PM on October 30, 2018 [1 favorite]

Does your insurance include any kind of mental health support? I really do think this is worth discussing with a therapist. Certainly there's some real risk, but it sounds like you are dealing with something more like PTSD because of what happened to your friend. I would go to therapy, I think, before talking to your supervisor about a transfer. It might be that you can't manage this, but maybe you can?
posted by bluedaisy at 4:46 PM on October 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Does your work offer any sort of Employee Assistance Program where you could talk to a therapist?

Also would they pay for some sort of Crisis Prevention training?
posted by elsietheeel at 6:26 PM on October 30, 2018 [2 favorites]

Hello, fellow librarian!
Yes, to checking with your supervisor and fellow staff about ramping up security at the front desk. Some of our libraries have a security guard, some do not.
I wish someone had suggested investing in a panic button straight to the police some years ago when a high-spirited teenager took the phone out of my manager's hand. A prearranged signal to the other desk would have been helpful, too.

The staff can brain-storm working solutions to potential problems with a patron without escalating the situation. We had an ongoing problem with this teenager, but it was the direct conflict between this person and the manager that finally got some concrete action done.
The police began making unscheduled visits, and eventually came in at the same time the young person was there and had a conversation with him (he had no library card so we had no way to contact his parents about his behavior).

Seconding seeing a professional for stress relief. Given the recent violence in the neighborhood I would be surprised if your library system has not offered training in conflict resolution and workplace violence. Is this where you are receiving your training? If that is the case, there may be an in-house referral service as well.

Keep the job, but you might check the grapevine about openings in other areas of the library which are not public-facing. You may need a rest from this responsibility, and good workers are valuable and worth retraining.

In another space and time I would have suggested using your skills in a public or private school library.
posted by TrishaU at 8:07 PM on October 30, 2018

Are you in a union? Or do full-time employees have a union? (I know union membership is really low these days but public employees often have them) If there is a union at your library, you should start with your rep (or ask a coworker who is in the union if they can pair up with you to do this) and talk about many of the good ideas in this thread, like a panic button or other security measures. If you there's no union, then start talking to your coworkers, see if anyone else has similar concerns, and go to your manager together.

Therapy is a good suggestion since it seems like this is impacting your life in a negative way, but I bet you're not the only one feeling anxious over this and there are concrete steps that can be taken to make you, your coworkers, and your patrons safer.
posted by lunasol at 2:05 PM on October 31, 2018

Response by poster: Follow up: thanks to all who took the time to answer my question. Luckily, my rotator cuff went out at the same time as my nerves, so I'm able to take some time off in order to recover. During this time, I'm setting up therapy. Also: they are getting a part-time security guard for the night shift at my library! My boss called me "a canary in the coal mine" and said that once I came forward with my concerns, other people at the library mentioned that they had them too.
posted by Jandoe at 7:16 AM on December 4, 2018 [4 favorites]

Sorry to hear about your injury, but it sounds like the timing is working out for you. And that's great that your boss backed you up. Good luck with your healing on all fronts.
posted by bluedaisy at 11:38 AM on December 4, 2018

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