Strategies for Managing Discipline Problems on the School Bus

School transportation directors are making use of special programs, equipment and driver policies to address discipline problems – and seeing results.

Districts around the nation are developing programs that help manage student behavior on the school bus. At Milford (Mass.) Public Schools, the district worked with its transportation contractor to create a bus committee, which oversees a school bus of the month program, develops educational materials for students and provides incentives and prizes for good behavior. The committee also implemented a “three strikes” policy to deal with discipline issues.

Schenectady, N.Y.‘s Howe International Magnet School has a “Peaceful School Bus Drill,” which teaches school bus behavior to students and also helps build relationships between students, bus drivers and school administrators. The 45-minute program groups students by bus route, then groups rotate to various stations for activities aimed at reducing bullying, improving safety and creating a sense of community.

Officials at John T. Waugh Elementary School in Angola, N.Y., rode along on school buses to determine what behavior problems needed to be addressed. They decided to organize special lunches where students of all ages were seated with their bus drivers and all signed a bus pledge promising to follow bus rules. “Bus buddies” were also assigned to monitor problems among students on the bus, particularly bullying. Based on feedback from the bus buddies, drivers and transportation management select a bus of the month, and these students and their drivers receive a special lunch and certificates.

Deputizing Drivers Works Well
For John Farr, giving school bus drivers the authority to deal with behavior problems directly provides many benefits. During his tenure as director of transportation at Oceanside (Calif.) Unified School District, he says, “I was a little skeptical at first, but once I saw how it worked, I saw that the drivers feel much more supported by a system like this.”

As Farr explains it, deferring discipline matters to a higher authority, like the principal, sends the message to students that their bus driver has no power. Often, kids take advantage of this situation.

However, if drivers are allowed to call the parents of misbehaving students directly, “the kid tells their friends, ‘The driver really did call my father,’ and it permeates the whole bus,” Farr says. “The consequences are immediate for the student, which is the way it has to be.”

Under this system, a driver encountering misbehavior on the bus issues the student a warning and follows the discipline procedure set out in the transportation department’s driver handbook. If the student continues to misbehave, Farr says the driver should contact the parent that evening.

He has found that drivers need some training in making these kinds of phone calls, but some simple tips can result in successful outcomes.

“You ask for their help, using those words: ‘I need your help. Your child is causing some small problems on the bus. Before I go to suspension or any more serious measures, I thought you could help me with this.’ That way you enlist the parent’s support,” Farr says.

Frequently, parents defend their children before hearing the driver out, which is understandable, he notes. But if the conversation continues in a negative direction, Farr trains drivers to then take down his or her name and number to call back later. “Generally, I wait 10 or 15 minutes so they have a chance to talk to the child with the information the driver gave them. Then I call the parent and if there’s no resolution, I ask if they’d like to meet with me and the driver and possibly a school administrator,” he says.

Letting transportation staff deal with discipline problems is usually a good thing for school administrators, too. “They loved it,” Farr says. “For the assistant principal, bus discipline took up probably 20 percent of his day. When that went away, whenever I did ask them for help, it was no problem.”

For school districts looking to implement a similar system, Farr recommends the formation of a committee to work out the details of a written policy and the associated paperwork, such as discipline referral forms. “Then have it enacted as a board policy, so it comes from the superintendent and board all the way down to the bus driver,” he says.

Seating Strategies Prevent Incidents
One method drivers can use to control behavior is assigned seating or reseating students who misbehave. In Farr’s experience, requiring students to sit in numbered rows throughout the school year helped with vandalism problems. “I used to encourage drivers to dismiss passengers row by row and inspect the seat as they got off. We probably caught more than half of them,” he says.

He also trained drivers to use positive reinforcement, complimenting students when they behave well. This was effective for all age groups, but particularly for middle school students, who were not impressed by stickers or other incentive programs.

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