Tackling School Bus Bullying

As bullying incidents onboard school buses become increasingly common, experts on the subject discuss its scarring effects and offer strategic approaches for drivers, while school officials disclose how their districts are working to curtail this problem.

Students in an Ohio city were riding a school bus when a boy took a video game from one of his peers and taunted him. The boy attempted to retrieve his game, but his aggressor tripped him and then began laughing. When the student got up, his aggressor’s demeanor changed — the boy had a bloody nose.

The driver attempted to assess the situation from her rearview mirror but stopped when she realized she ran a red light and was going to hit the truck in front of her. She tried to brake but was too late — she slammed into the truck head-on.

This incident demonstrates the damaging effects of student misbehavior and bullying onboard school buses. Fortunately, it is only a fictional scenario from the film “Tears on the Highway.”

Film is just one medium the district is using to facilitate a safe environment and alleviate bullying onboard its school buses. The district and others around the country follow anti-bullying protocol and are employing innovative techniques to assuage this common challenge.

Bus Bullying is National, International Problem
Recently a San Mateo, Calif., student was attacked on a school bus. The incident was captured on a cell phone camera and posted on the Internet sites MySpace and YouTube shortly thereafter.

According to the victim’s mother, the incident and its subsequent posting online have significantly impacted her daughter. She became depressed, and the local news station that reported on the incident said the child was fearful of going to class and dropped out of school.

Bullying on buses is an international problem too. An 11-year-old boy in England hanged himself in 2006 after enduring extensive name-calling while on his school bus. An investigation into the case discovered that the bus driver was allegedly responsible for some of the name-calling. According to news reports, while the driver admitted calling the victim several of the alleged names, he classified it as “banter” between the two. No further actions were taken against him because it was the driver’s word against the child’s.

Harassment Leads to Significant Repercussions
In addition to physical injury, bullying can inflict severe emotional damage on all children involved. According to Dr. Ellen deLara, a family therapist, faculty member at Syracuse University’s School of Social Work, and a faculty fellow at Cornell University, bullied children tend to experience anxiety. Also, they experience depression and are inclined to skip school. Moreover, kids who witness bullying but do not know what to do about it or know what to do but fail to act, often feel guilty. She says bullies can also suffer from anxiety.

DeLara studies bullying on buses because she views the bus ride as an integral part of students’ school experience. “I want school administrators to become more aware of the problems that drivers are facing — they can’t just see school bus bullying as separate from the rest of the day,” she says.

Dr. Nancy Blackwelder, an international staff development specialist, teaches classes on student behavior management, one of which covers bullying prevention. Blackwelder explains that many children become bullies because they have been victims of bullying themselves. “As a result, they gain a form of control by doing the bullying,” she says.

Blackwelder says there are two main types of bullying — direct and indirect. Direct bullying involves inflicting physical injury on the victim, such as hitting or kicking. Indirect (or subtle) bullying involves engaging in activities that harm the victim emotionally, such as spreading rumors about the victim or intentionally excluding the victim from social situations.

She adds that individuals can experience “devastating feelings of loneliness and abandonment” long after they finish school as a result of being bullied. She also reveals that a victim’s anxiety and stress can interfere with all aspects of his or her life and, as evidenced from the incident in England, can lead to suicide.

Bullies can also experience lifelong side effects. In addition to anxiety, Blackwelder says the bullying behavior may extend into a child’s adult life. “The individual may exercise verbal, emotional and physical abuse on those around him or her,” she says.

Bus Drivers Must Have Tools to Address Bullying
It is important for adults and, more specifically, bus drivers to be equipped with tools to help prevent and curtail bullying on their vehicles. Blackwelder has released a one-hour video on bullying and harassment (“Bullies/Harassment”). In it, she discloses the characteristics of bullies and victims, then discusses the long-term consequences of their behavior. She also offers strategies for preventing bullying and assisting victims with self-esteem and conflict-resolution issues.

She suggests that while it is important to work with bullies to help them change their behavior, it is equally important to spend time with victims when bullying has been exposed. “Once you’re a victim of bullying, you can’t get out from under it — it’s a cycle,” she says. “Adults need to help the victims realize that they have other options — they don’t have to be a victim.”

According to Blackwelder, 80 percent of students do not take part in bullying, but they also do not report such incidents; in this way, they are tacitly approving the bullies’ behavior. She suggests that bus drivers appeal to that 80 percent of students. “Peer pressure is a huge deterrent when it comes to bullying,” Blackwelder explains. “If enough kids tell a person that what they’re doing isn’t right, the bullying can be stopped.”

Harassment Victims Want Bus Drivers’ Help
DeLara has interviewed many students to uncover what they believe are the best methods to prevent bullying on school buses. “Students wish their drivers would intervene [when bullying occurs],” she says. “Of course, they realize that the drivers are trying to keep the bus safely on the road, so they suggest that there should be another adult present on the bus.”

DeLara acknowledges that some school districts cannot afford bus monitors. Therefore, she believes there are things drivers can do to help prevent incidents from occurring. First, deLara advocates creating a warm and inviting environment on the school bus. She has found that 10 percent of students say their bus driver is the person they talk to if they need help solving a problem. “Some kids don’t come from very good homes, so if they get on a bus and their driver greets them and gives them attention, the kids will feel safe and feel like this is an adult who cares about them,” she says.

DeLara also urges bus drivers to make their voices heard. “They may be having a problem with a particular kid on a chronic basis, but they can’t get anyone to pay attention to them, even after they file the disciplinary report,” she reveals. To remedy this, she says it is crucial for drivers to become informed about bullying and gather the support of their managers.

“Drivers need to not just complain among themselves about the problem,” says deLara. “They need to get a coalition of people together, gain the support of their managers, go to school administrators and say ‘We want to see some changes.’ The only way to move any system is with the concerted effort of a group of people.”

Furthermore, deLara suggests that drivers have a representative on their school’s safety planning team. “Each year, schools involve teachers, administrators and someone from the community in their safety planning team, but they really need to have bus drivers and students on that team in an ongoing fashion,” she says. “If they don’t include the drive
rs and students, they’re missing the perspectives of a whole segment of the population.”

Drivers Should Pay Attention to Physical Cues
Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school safety center based in Macon, Ga., has trained bus drivers on bullying prevention for many years. In addition to establishing a no-tolerance attitude toward bullying, he urges drivers to pay attention to students’ demeanors (body language, facial expressions, composure) when they enter and exit the school bus.

“Students who are chronically bullied rarely tell an adult while they’re in school, usually because they believe the adults don’t care or can’t do anything about the problem,” he says. “The more drivers reach out to their students, the more inclined a child will be to approach the driver if he or she is having a problem.”

Dorn also advocates maintaining discipline aboard the bus. “Bullying tends to occur more frequently and more severely in locations where children are not disciplined as much as they should be,” he explains.

Cassandra Ingham works as an educational institutions staff specialist for Utica National Insurance in New Hartford, N.Y. Ingham has hosted numerous bullying awareness, intervention and prevention workshops for staff members in the schools that Utica National insures. Ingham says one of the most proactive things a driver can do with respect to bullying is pull over and intervene immediately if he or she notices bullying occurring. “It’s called the ‘teachable moment’ because it’s a time when the driver can point out the problematic behavior and inform the child that what they’re doing is wrong,” she explains.

If a driver is unable to intervene immediately, Ingham recommends issuing a verbal warning to the student doing the bullying and then notifying the appropriate school official about the incident.

Many Districts Work to “Bully-Proof” Their Buses
Pupil transportation officials do not take school bus bullying lightly. Jeff Porter, transportation supervisor for Jenison (Mich.) Public Schools, says that his district “bully-proofed” itself five years ago after drivers reported a substantial number of incidents. The bully-proofing was a district-wide effort wherein its staff learned about the different types of bullying, learned what to look for as far as student behavior is concerned and then familiarized themselves with bullying prevention tactics.

In conjunction with this effort, the district has a zero-tolerance attitude toward bullying — district staff members tell students if their behavior is unacceptable. “The more subtle forms of bullying are the easiest to deal with because the students often don’t realize that what they’re doing is considered bullying,” says Porter. “But when we talk to them about it and hit the right button, their behavior is usually not a problem after that.”

Porter is also having his drivers read a book written by deLara and Dr. James Garbarino titled “And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence.” Porter says the drivers’ response has been positive. “The drivers are enjoying the book,” he says. “Every month we talk about bullying, the scenarios mentioned in the book, how they relate to our district and what we can do to alleviate those problems.”

Anti-Bullying Curriculum Focuses on Driver Awareness
Several years ago, Jim Ellis, transportation director at Moravia (N.Y.) Central School District, wrote the New York State Education Department (NYSED) bullying curriculum. Ellis says he focused on conveying the importance of driver awareness. “The campaign for the curriculum was called ‘Not on My Bus.’ The idea was to advocate a no-tolerance policy with respect to bullying on buses,” he says. “We also asked drivers to be cognizant of target kids, those who are prime targets for bullies, and to make an effort to provide a safe environment for them.”

Although his curriculum is no longer in place (the NYSED changes its in-service curriculums annually), his message did not go unheard. He says several drivers at his district took his message to heart. One snapped photos of all her students and posted them inside her bus. Ellis says this helped create a familial atmosphere and has cut down on the students’ propensity to bully one another. Another driver, Suzanne Stayton, had her students create a list of putdowns and has this list posted in her bus. Students are not permitted to say those words on her bus, and this has engendered a positive, respectful atmosphere.

At Orange (Calif.) Unified School District, one of the first methods employed for bullying prevention is to emphasize to students that drivers are trustworthy. “Students are reminded to view school district adults, including their bus drivers, as trusted individuals whom they can go to if they feel at risk or threatened,” says Ellen Johnson, transportation supervisor. She adds that district personnel make it known to students that when they feel they are being treated inappropriately by their peers, they are encouraged to seek help from them; to that end, staff members are trained to remain confidential to discourage retaliation to the bullied victim.

Johnson says that the district’s drivers also receive awareness training, where they are taught to watch for signs that signify a student may be experiencing bullying. In addition to anxiety, these signs include shyness, insecurity and cautious behavior. “Drivers also use seating charts and regularly change seat assignments if they suspect that a student is being bullied,” she says.

Finally, in the event that bullying occurs on a school bus, drivers are required to complete a bus conduct report. “This citation keeps the lines of communication open between the driver, staff, district administrators and parents,” Johnson explains, “and by increasing awareness and maintaining open communication, we increase the comfort level of the students while they are on our buses.”

Placing 2nd Adult on Bus Helps Maintain Order
Other districts are implementing additional strategies as well. Warren Roaf, principal at Mount Anthony Union Middle School (MAUMS) in Bennington, Vt., says the Mount Anthony Union School Board has allotted him $15,000 to place paraprofessionals on the district’s buses. So far, Roaf has placed two paraprofessionals on the district’s buses on a rotating basis. “We weren’t, and aren’t, having bullying problems, but I wanted to be proactive and prevent anything from happening,” he says.

Parent requests also influenced Roaf’s decision to take this step. MAUMS, which was a seventh- and eighth-grade-based middle school for many years, recently began accepting sixth-grade students. In the wake of this change, parents were concerned that the younger children could run into problems while riding with the older students. “Also, younger students need a higher level of supervision,” Roaf says, “so we looked at a number of ways we could support the parents’ request and ultimately came up with placing paraprofessionals on the buses.”

The two paraprofessionals who work on the buses were hired from within the district. Roaf and Cindy Dufour, manager of Dufour Tours Inc.’s Bennington, Vt., school bus dispatch office, selected them after they interviewed for the positions. Dufour says she chose them based on their desire to improve student safety onboard the buses. “These individuals have strong personalities, and I knew they weren’t going to put up with any misbehavior,” Dufour says. “They’re interested in student safety and are concerned about the dangerous behavior that can occur on sc
hool buses.”

The paraprofessionals, who received extensive training after initially becoming employed by the district in order to learn how to work with students, serve as “another set of eyes” for the drivers. “They’re there to make sure something doesn’t develop in the first place,” Roaf says, “but if something were to develop, having them on the buses would allow us to get more accurate information because the driver can’t see everything that goes on behind him or her.” Dufour agrees. She also notes that they, like the bus driver, are authorized to fill out a referral form if they see or hear bullying or disruptive behavior.

Because this system is in its infancy, Roaf says the district will spend the next year evaluating its effectiveness. If, after the evaluation, Roaf feels it is necessary to place more paraprofessionals on the district’s buses, the school board has said it will provide him with additional funding.

Cameras, Other Solutions Address Problem
Northwest R-I School District in High Ridge, Mo., is also facing bullying head-on. Dr. Kevin Carl, assistant superintendent of funds and facilities for the district, says it is in the process of installing full-color digital cameras (which also have the capacity to record sound) on its 110 buses. Carl anticipates the installations will be completed by the end of the first semester.

“The cameras give the driver a picture of the students as they enter the bus, and then they give the driver and students a picture of the students while they’re sitting in the bus,” he says. He adds that the cameras will function as an additional safety measure for the students and drivers; by extension, if bullying incidents occur, the cameras will provide an accurate account of what happened. The cameras are not, however, meant to be a remedy for bullying. “We believe that the cameras will be a good deterrent for bullying, but it’s just one step,” Carl says.

The district is also using the Character Plus Program, a character-building program offered to schools in the St. Louis area. One of its objectives is to educate students on what bullying looks like, as well as how they should respond and whom they can report to if they are being bullied.

Lastly, BusRadio was installed in the district’s buses in September. “This addresses the bullying in a more proactive way; the cameras are a more reactive step because the bullying will have already occurred by the time we view it on the tapes,” Carl says. BusRadio is a combination of age-appropriate music and public service announcements that are played in school buses while transporting students. Carl says the public service announcements will remind students about bus safety and also remind them about the things they are learning in the Character Plus Program.

Carl believes that BusRadio will improve student behavior and decrease bus bullying. “We’re very optimistic this will have a positive impact on students,” he says. “BusRadio has done quite a few studies and has found that if students are engaged in activities that are of interest to them, they most likely won’t engage in undesirable behavior.”

Like Northwest R-I School District, Richland School District Two in Columbia, S.C., has digital cameras on its buses. Wendell Shelton, transportation manager at the district, says the surveillance system was installed on its 98 buses several years ago.

Used as a deterrent for bullying, Shelton says the district chose the digital video recorder (DVR) system due to its multiple features and its high sound and picture quality. “The cameras allow us to display students’ behavior to our school administrators, and if the behavior is indicative of bullying, the consequences can be more appropriate than they would be if we didn’t have a video record of the behavior,” he says.

The district’s drivers have also benefited from having the DVR system in the buses. “The most common thing we hear from drivers when they radio in is that they’ll need to review the video when they come in because they know something is going on behind them but they can’t catch it in their rearview mirrors,” Shelton says.

Efforts to Curb Bullying Must be Ongoing
In addition to these solutions and appropriate training, tenacity is essential in combating bus bullying. It will not be reduced without a continued effort, not just from drivers, but from school officials as well. “School bus bullying is part of a larger problem within the school system as a whole,” deLara says, “so I feel it’s critical for drivers to receive extensive support to help them deal with this issue.”

Additional Resources Available to Address Bus Bullying

There are numerous resources school districts can adopt to educate their drivers about bullying prevention. For instance, Coastal Training Technologies Corp., based in Virginia Beach, Va., has produced a video titled “Breaking Up Fights on the Bus.” Chris Scaglione, the company’s product and marketing manager, says “Drivers are taught the proper forms of intervention as well as the improper forms so they don’t cause injury to themselves or to the students involved.” He adds that with the DVD version, district officials are able to customize the PowerPoint slides according to their district’s policies.

Coastal Training also offers a course called “Bullying Prevention: Taking Action.” Scaglione says this tutorial covers verbal, physical, psychological and cyberbullying, and then offers strategies on how to prevent and intervene during each of these types of incidents.

In 2005, Jim Ellis, who is currently transportation director at Moravia (N.Y.) Central School District, made a 30-minute training video called “Growing Respect on Your Bus” while working at the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute, based in Syracuse, N.Y. He says the video provides drivers with traditional student management tips and emphasizes the importance of establishing a respectful tone onboard a school bus. “It also discusses that it is important for drivers to be aware of anything that might be troubling their students and, if they suspect a student is being bullied, to talk to him or her,” Ellis says.

Cassandra Ingham who is an educational institutions staff specialist for Utica National Insurance in New Hartford, N.Y., and Dr. Ellen deLara, a family therapist, faculty member at Syracuse University’s School of Social Work, and a faculty fellow at Cornell University, are two of the subject matter experts featured in the video.

“Drivers provided good insight on effective bullying intervention methods as well,” Ingham says. “A big part of what the video conveys is that drivers must send the message that bullying onboard school buses will not be tolerated.”

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Kelly Roher is the associate editor of School Bus Fleet (SBF) magazine. Online information about SBF is available at www.schoolbusfleet.com.


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