Two years ago, 13-year-old Josh Belluardos was struck in the head by a bully while getting off the school bus in Cherokee County, Ga. The blow caused a microscopic hole in an artery at the base of Josh’s skull. He died two days later. The bully, 14-year old Jonathan Miller, was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison. As a result of Josh’s case, Georgia lawmakers passed an anti-bullying law that allows schools to suspend students after two bullying incidents and to transfer them to an alternative school upon a third infraction. In reaction to cases such as Josh’s, anti-bully coalitions are popping up across the country, complete with Websites, handbooks, counselors and toll-free numbers. And yet bullying persists and, some say, grows. What can be done to prevent other children from suffering the same fate as Josh?
Identify bullies, victims
The first step toward reducing the frequency of bullying in the schools and on the school bus is to learn to recognize bullying behavior and the students who exhibit it. Bullying is not always a matter of physical violence such as tripping, hitting or pushing. It encompasses a wide range of behaviors, including teasing, name-calling, threatening and social ridicule. According to studies, the majority of students are both bully and victim, depending on the situation. Researchers say, therefore, it is important to avoid grouping kids into the categories of good and bad, but rather, to recognize the victim inside even the biggest of bullies. Condemning the student who misbehaves, they say, may actually increase misbehavior by causing frustration and anger within the student, who feels misunderstood.
Target the behavior
Rather than condemning bullies, condemn the misbehavior. So says Take Action Against Bullying, a manual authored by teachers in Coquitlam, B.C. “The most effective tool for dealing with bullying is to mobilize the masses of students who are neither victims nor bullies to take action against bullying,” the teachers say. With other students condemning the act of bullying, bullies will not fit in unless they cease the inappropriate behavior. And fitting in, as we all know, is very important to students.
Emphasize rules, respect
Transportation directors, bus drivers and psychologists from across the country assert that the key to reducing bullying on the school bus is to consistently enforce the rules, while at the same time treating each student with respect. To achieve this balance, they recommend the following: Have a seating chart. A seating chart is critical to student safety and student management. In the event of an accident, a seating chart will enable officials to reconstruct the incident and to better understand the effects it had on each student. Seating charts also help drivers learn students’ names and to pinpoint the source of behavior problems. When a student breaks a rule, moving his or her seat is the driver’s first means of discipline. It has an immediate impact on the student and demonstrates the control and competency of his or her driver. Know students’ names and personalities. If you don’t know students by name, “it’s an indicator that you’re not really in charge; that you’re not paying attention,” says Trina Cron, a driver training consultant in Santa Fe, N.M., and author of Driving Me Crazy, an analysis of passenger discipline referrals. Though it can be difficult for drivers to get to know every student by name when they drive multiple routes, Cron believes it is essential to establishing a relationship, and notes that having a seating chart helps in remembering names. In addition, drivers seem to have fewer problems when they get to know students as individuals and take an interest in their lives. This may include complimenting a student’s new outfit, inquiring about homework assignments or knowing about extracurricular activities. “Respect works two ways,” says Cron. “Once a driver takes the initiative to find out about the students, it is surprising how eager they are to welcome the driver into their world.” Clearly state the rules and consequences. Students feel safer when they know the rules and are more apt to abide by them when they understand the reasons behind them, says Cron. Students should know that the rules in the transportation industry are for safety’s sake. Some drivers hang rule posters in the bus so students see them every day. Cron endorses driver/student communication time on every route — two minutes in the morning, when the last student gets on the bus, and two minutes in the afternoon, before the return trip home. During this time, drivers introduce themselves and go over the rules. Eventually, the driver can begin to have conversations with students and to get to know them on a more personal level. In this way, a trusting relationship is developed between the driver and the passengers, wherein students feel comfortable to come to the driver when problems arise. React quickly. “Don’t let a situation develop to where it’s too hard to handle,” warns Ginny Melara, transportation supervisor at the Carrollton-Farmers Branch Independent School District in Carrollton, Texas. Move a student’s seat, write a referral or take some sort of disciplinary measure immediately, before the problem grows larger. But be sure to guard the privacy of the victim and to protect him or her from becoming an object of ridicule. “You have to have a relationship with the kids,” Melara says, “where they trust the driver enough to tell him about problems.” Because, as she correctly notes, the driver is often not aware of “sneaky” bullying until a student brings it to his or her attention. Get adequate training. “The industry must recognize that some management problems are student problems and some are driver problems,” says Cron. She believes that training must not only be available, but that drivers should be held accountable for what they learn in training. She also advocates role playing as a driver training tool, wherein groups of drivers act out scenarios that might occur on their buses and decide together how to best approach these situations. It is a means of gathering information from the real experts — the drivers themselves.
Use peer pressure
“It is impossible to correct a bully’s behavior by just screaming at him while driving down the road,” says Bonnie MacCartney, a program associate at the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute and former New York school bus driver. “It takes a little human effort.” MacCartney recommends cultivating “positive peer pressure.” With most students getting along, a bully would stick out like a sore thumb. The desire to fit in will drive students to behave. To create an atmosphere in which bullying will not be tolerated, MacCartney reminds the students of the cardinal rule — “Be good to each other.” On this point she does not waver. For example, if one child hurts another child’s feelings, she holds both students on-board after everyone else has unloaded and makes the offender apologize. After the victim accepts the apology, she talks privately to the bully and explains that hurtful behavior will not be tolerated on her bus. “The good news,” she adds, “is that I will not allow your feelings to be hurt by anyone on this bus either.” Often, she tops this off with a stick of gum and a smile. “It is important to let the child know that you don’t hate him, thus giving you the chance to build a relationship.” MacCartney adds that some of her favorite kids started out as bullies on the bus. “Many just needed to be redirected and reminded how very important they are,” she says.
It’s everyone’s problem
MacCartney touches on two important points — uniting all students against bullying and acknowledging the feelings of the bully as well as the victim. In a study by Beate Schuster, Ph.D., child bullies overwhelmingly report that they are unhappy, dislike school and experience problems at home. As MacCartney realizes, the situation for these children will not improve if they continue to be misunderstood. In fact, according to research by Cindi Seddon, co-author of Take Action Against Bullying, “If a ruffian’s behavior isn’t addressed by the time he or she is 8 years old, the bully will have a 60 percent chance of having a criminal conviction by age 25.” In addition, the No Bully Organization, a non-profit group based in Wellington, New Zealand, reports that bullies, as adults, have more court convictions, more alcoholism, more personality disorders and use more mental health services than the general population.
Don’t enable a bully
There is a fine line between empathizing with the bully and enabling bullying. Researchers, educators and bus drivers alike agree that it must be made clear that bullying will not be tolerated. Christine Arbogast, a school bus driver in Buffalo, N.Y., claims she solved a bullying problem simply by confronting the boy causing the problem and letting him know that his behavior was unacceptable. He was threatening a female passenger, causing her to be sad and withdrawn. “I hear that you are scaring someone really bad and the teacher and supervisor can’t do anything about it. I am neither your teacher nor your supervisor. I am your school bus driver, and I will do something about it,” she stated firmly. Not knowing what she would do if this didn’t work, Arbogast was pleased to discover that it did. All it took was confronting the bully as an individual and letting him know who was in charge. As MacCartney puts it, “Children know inside of them what is right and wrong. Sometimes they just need to be reminded. And, in some cases, they crave someone to care enough to do it.”