How to Get Control of a Rowdy Bus

Steve Hirano, Editor
Posted on August 1, 2000

We’ve all heard the stories. A bus driver is bitten by a third-grader or kicked by a sixth-grader or physically threatened by an eighth-grader. Misconduct reports are written and submitted, but nothing is done. The offending rider — and his buddies — are encouraged by this lack of enforcement and begin a campaign to turn the bus into a rolling zoo. It’s easy to dismiss this scenario as the consequence of a driver who can’t control his passengers, but the reality is that even the most experienced, well-trained drivers can require several levels of support to quell severe discipline problems. When transportation departments start experiencing a cascade of behavioral problems aboard their buses, they should examine the nature of the problems. The most effective solution may be an integrated approach. And solutions are needed. Few veterans of school transportation would deny that misbehavior on the school bus has escalated over the past several years. Yes, it’s still a small percentage of students who cause most of the problems, but the disrespectful attitudes and levels of misbehavior have intensified. What’s more, children are starting to flout authority figures at a younger age. When 6-year-olds start bringing guns to school, you know that drivers need all the help they can muster to maintain control of the bus environment. So what’s to be done? You should start with a close examination of the driver. If he is performing his duties with at least adequate command — and problems are still arising — he might not be receiving the support he needs and deserves from bus supervisors, building administrators and/or parents. This is where the transportation department needs to investigate the need for an integrated approach. Start with the following key questions:

  • Does the school district have a uniform school bus discipline policy? More importantly, is each school implementing the policy consistently?
  • Are you certain that parents are aware of the district’s school bus code of conduct? Are they kept in the loop when disciplinary problems with their children start to arise?
  • Does the transportation supervisor have a positive, mutually respectful relationship with building administrators and district officials? Can drivers expect their supervisor to back them up when their complaints to building administrators do not result in disciplinary measures? If you’ve answered no to any of these questions, your drivers may not be receiving the administrative support they need to get control of an unruly bus. Although they appear to be in command of the bus, the passengers hold the upper hand. To find ways of building levels of support for the drivers, we talked to transportation managers around the country. Here’s what they had to say about integrated approaches to behavior management.

    Start at the schools
    If you don’t have the support of your schools, your drivers are walking a high wire without a net. Eventually, this situation puts the driver in conflict with the school or parents, often ending in frustration for the driver. Too many of these conflicts can prompt a driver to search for less stressful avenues of employment, and few school bus operators can afford to lose drivers these days. Building a strong relationship between drivers and building administrators isn’t a slam dunk. Principals and assistant principals are busy people and often view transportation as a low-priority responsibility. You might need to try something novel to bring them into the loop.

    The roadeo gambit
    Linda Yenzer, director at Hunterdon Central/Flemington Raritan Joint Transportation in New Jersey, decided the best way to close the gap between administrators and the transportation program was to put administrators behind the wheel. The inaugural Administrators Roadeo was held May 16, with more than a dozen administrators — including principals, assistant principals, business managers and superintendents — taking part. Yenzer says the event was difficult to stage, but worth the effort. “It was amazing and worth every second that went into planning it,” Yenzer says. The participants not only enjoyed the competition, but discovered how difficult it is to pilot a school bus. She said a couple of principals have already volunteered to address the drivers during this fall’s back-to-school breakfast. In years past, principals were “just too busy” to speak to the drivers. Lisa Brady, principal of Hunterdon Central Regional High School, participated in the event and gave it a thumbs-up on several fronts. “It was a terrific way to get to know the drivers in a more personal way, as well as gain a better appreciation for what they do,” Brady says. “Driving the bus was definitely more difficult than I would have imagined, but the time spent in training with my driver gave me an opportunity to chat about her everyday life on the bus with the kids.” The program required the entrants to interact with the drivers. Each administrator spent an hour in training with a driver before the start of the event. Moreover, when the driving portion of the roadeo was conducted, drivers rode the bus as stand-ins for rowdy students. “They harassed me and were trying to smoke cigarettes while throwing water at each other,” says Brady of her “students.” “Of course, this was extremely distracting while I was trying to drive, but really made me realize what it is like to try to drive and supervise at the same time.”

    Motivating schools
    At Pinellas County Schools in Largo, Fla., a fleet of more than 500 school buses transports an estimated 46,000 students daily. It’s easy for drivers to get lost in the shuffle as they try to deal with the huge educational bureaucracy. However, the transportation department employs a seniority system that encourages schools to help drivers with disciplinary issues, according to Dr. Nancy Blackwelder, an assistant transportation director. Because drivers are assigned routes based on seniority, schools that want the most experienced people at the wheel of their buses are motivated to treat drivers well. “The word gets out on schools that support their drivers in disciplinary matters and the ones that don’t,” Blackwelder says. “Our most senior drivers will end up getting routes at schools that they feel support them in discipline issues.” The schools with lesser reputations are likely to get more inexperienced drivers or open routes that aren’t filled by regular drivers. “The schools need to understand that if they treat the drivers better, then they’ll end up with the better drivers,” Blackwelder says. “Some principals understand that logic and have begun to pull the drivers in as part of their family.”

    Friends of Transportation
    “We discovered that there are a number of schools that are already doing some nice things for the drivers,” Blackwelder says. To reward these schools, the transportation department created a Friends of Transportation form letter that drivers can fill out and submit to the transportation director. If, say, an assistant principal supports a driver in a discipline issue, that driver might file a Friends of Transportation letter on the administrator’s behalf. One school was recognized because it provided Cokes to drivers every Friday. Another school gave drivers copies of the morning newspaper. In all, about 100 letters were submitted last year, Blackwelder says. Each school and/or administrator received a thank-you note from Michael Fleming, the transportation director. In addition, a copy of the note was sent to the recipient’s supervisor. “They liked the idea that they were getting strokes from somebody,” she says. To capitalize on these letters even further, the department created a publication with write-ups about the good deeds and photos of the good deeders. It was sent to all 120-plus schools in the district, prompting some principals to examine what they were doing for their drivers.

    Consistency helps
    As any parent knows, consistency is the key to many behavior management problems. Drivers needs to be consistent in how they handle behavior that jeopardizes safety on the school bus. If one student is slapped with a misconduct report for putting his head outside the bus window, every student who commits the same infraction should receive the same treatment. Equally important, schools need to be consistent in how they deal with referral slips. If one school handles these reports swiftly and judiciously and another allows them to gather dust at the bottom of someone’s “in basket,” the transportation department will know about it. Drivers talk long and hard about how their referrals are handled. Few drivers will want to work with a school that doesn’t take care of its student behavior problems. At Rio Rancho (N.M.) Public Schools, principals are being encouraged to toughen up their enforcement of behavior problems aboard school buses. “We need a little more support from the schools,” says Minnie Morgan, manager of school bus contractor Helweg and Farmer’s Rio Rancho terminal. Morgan says her terminal covers 56 routes for the school district. Last year, drivers filed 1,277 incident reports, up more than 250 from the previous year. In response, district officials are urging principals to crack down on the offenders. What they want to see is a reduction in the number of warnings and an increase in the number of disciplinary actions. “Maybe we didn’t stick to the code of conduct as closely as we should have in previous years,” says Dr. James King, assistant superintendent for administrative operations. “But we’re encouraging the principals to follow the step progression. We want to make sure that all the principals support the code this year.” King also urges greater immediacy in the reporting of safety infractions. For example, drivers who write a misconduct report on their afternoon route are urged to fax the document to the schools after they return to their terminal. “You can get into a time lag if you’re not careful. We don’t want to wait 24 or 48 hours to deal with these referrals,” he says. “In most cases, the closer to the event that the disciplinary action is ordered, the more effective it is.” At Pinellas County Schools, the transportation department has begun to log misconduct reports in a master database that allows them to be sorted by driver, student or school. This system was created, Blackwelder says, because schools have been lax in inputting referrals into their own databases. “You couldn’t get good reports from the schools,” she says. This database allows for a school-to-school comparison that can help to spur competition among schools for the lowest referral rates on their buses. Plus, it can provide data to support allegations of problems at specific schools or with specific drivers or students. “With our database, you’re working with data rather than someone’s opinion or perception,” Blackwelder says.

    Don’t cry wolf
    If schools are expected to be consistent in how they handle referral slips, then drivers need to be consistent in the type of incidents they report. If one driver is writing up every student who stands up too soon to get off the bus, but another driver ignores this behavior, school administrators will have a difficult time determining the severity of the problem. In addition, too many referrals about minor problems can affect the credibility of your drivers. Building administrators could start to disregard all of your drivers’ complaints if they receive an avalanche of paperwork about trifling problems. At Parkway School District in Chesterfield, Mo., drivers are encouraged to submit misconduct reports only when necessary, says Mike Byrne, the transportation director. “Our principals and assistant principals will help us in any way possible when we encounter a serious situation, so we try not to ask for their help unless we believe it is a problem that warrants immediate and dramatic action,” he says. This “don’t cry wolf” attitude is also duly noted by the passengers. “Our kids know that most of the drivers don’t write up every potential little infraction, but when they say they’re going to report a student’s behavior, the kids know that the driver will have the backing of a building administrator,” Byrne says.

    Parents play key role
    Parents are a critical component of an integrated approach to quelling misbehavior on the bus. Without their support, drivers are unlikely to succeed in bring serious problems under control. Connecting with parents requires that they understand their responsibilities and that they actually believe that their child is capable of creating a problem on the bus. Ensuring that they are aware of the bus safety rules can be as simple as requiring that they sign a notification letter at the beginning of the school year. Although they may sign the form without reading it, it can be helpful to have the letter in hand if a disciplinary meeting is required. It shows that the school district had taken steps to warn the parents about misbehavior on school buses. “My most successful drivers deal directly with the parents,” says Gene McFall, transportation manager at Hoover City Board of Education in Alabama. To back up the drivers, especially in the case of parents who don’t believe that their children misbehave, McFall says the buses are equipped with video cameras. The use of video surveillance has become relatively routine on school buses. Capturing safety violations on tape, however, doesn’t guarantee that the behavior will cease. To better understand why some students disregard any attempts to control their actions, one Texas school district provides its staff with a psychology lesson.

    The psyche exposed
    At Cypress-Fairbanks Independent School District in Houston, drivers and attendants have the opportunity to look inside the minds of middle-school students. As scary as this sounds, Transportation Director Bonnie Russell says the 30-student limit has been quickly reached each time the class has been offered. The eight-hour course, called “Success with the Middle School Rider,” was developed by Cypress-Fairbanks’ transportation staff a few years ago. Russell says the class provides drivers and attendants with a clearer, more complete picture of what is happening in the minds and bodies of early adolescents. “It gives the drivers an awareness of why middle-school students behave the way they do,” Russell explains. It also provides strategies in how to deal with the behavior problems typically associated with the middle-school population. Russell says the course is optional and drivers are not paid to attend. However, employees who complete the course receive bonus points on their annual performance evaluations for attending optional professional development relevant to their job. An abbreviated version of the course has been taught by the Cypress-Fairbanks staff at surrounding school districts, Russell adds.

    When all else fails. . .
    When school administrators and parents can’t be brought into the loop, go back to square one — the driver. Push for more training in behavior management, especially in the area of conflict management. At Loudon County Schools in Leesburg, Va., all bus drivers receive training in the Mandt System, which teaches them how to deal with conflict through team effort, trust and communication. Michael Lunsford, the district’s transportation director, says the typical response to conflict is emotional, which often can worsen the situation. The Mandt System, he says, teaches drivers to stay calm and focused so other behavior management techniques can be used. “Although this program is not expressly for bus drivers, it enhances their ability to deal with people logically and gives them processes to de-escalate situations,” he says. Many drivers believe the best way to calm rowdy passengers is to make them wait. Their lack of patience makes them vulnerable. “I’ve found that the best method of dealing with a bus load of misbehaving students is to pull over to the side of the road and wait for them to realize what’s going on,” says Mary Becker, a driver for Westerly School Department in Rhode Island. “Then, without raising my voice, I tell them why I’ve done what I’ve done, and how they can solve the problem. After a few times of getting to school late or getting home late, it doesn’t happen again.”

    You sit there!
    The case for assigned seating is strong. Wayne Reese, transportation supervisor at Cache County School District in North Logan, Utah, says it helps to keep peace on the bus and also curtails seat vandalism. “In addition, it helps with behavior in the loading zone because students don’t have to rush the bus to get the seat they want,” Reese says. “It also helps each student feel like they belong. They don’t have to worry about being shunned by their peers.” Julie Ewing, a driver for St. Tammany School District in Slidell, La., says she used assigned seating to help her get control of the bus after she took over “one of the worst routes in the city.” Once the students were assigned seats, there was some improvement, “but room for more,” Ewing says. So she started an incentive program called Free Seat Day. “On Friday they could sit anywhere they wanted if the entire bus was good all week,” she explains. “This group only lost a few Free Seat Days all year. They turned out to be one of my best groups. It did my heart good to hear the other students correcting the misbehaving one. It became uncool to act-up on my bus.”

    Related Topics: behavior management

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