School transportation is a conservative business. Getting kids safely between home and school by way of yellow school buses has been a static and successful concept for many decades. Ask a school bus driver, however, and you might hear that student behavior on the bus is gradually getting worse. In fact, SBF surveys have consistently found that drivers list student behavior as one of their biggest challenges.
Ironically, there are signs that the behavior of children and adolescents is not worsening and has actually been a constant. For example, transportation managers in large school districts have corroborated that discipline referral rates have remained stable through the years. Moreover, juvenile delinquency rates in the United States are in many cases lower today than they were 20 years ago, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.
Given these facts, what is the truth about student behavior today? Is it indeed getting more difficult to deal with today’s children on the school bus? And what measures are being taken to improve bus discipline? To get to the bottom of these and other related questions, SBF queried a panel of industry veterans, each with extensive experience in both transportation operations and student management. Their answers offer fascinating insight.
Panel of Experts
Kalmes: I don’t think behavior is getting worse, but I think that drivers have had more issues because we have added larger-capacity buses and filled those buses closer to capacity. We also hear more reports of serious incidents through the media.
Grinkewicz: Behavior on school buses seems to change yearly. Overall, with a focus on driver training, video cameras and a lot of good riders, our referrals are down.
McClure: Behavior is no better or worse than it was in the past. The views of society are just different. For example, what was once considered “boys just being boys” is now considered sexual harassment or bullying.
Raper: I think it’s gotten worse because children today need more interaction from adults in their lives, so they act out to get that attention.
Robinson: I don’t think behavior of students is getting worse, I just think we are seeing different sorts of behavior. As the world around students changes, so does their behavior. It is often a reflection of their environment.
Smith: Some cities are better than others, just as some school districts control behavior better than others. Greater awareness of this problem in the media has led to the perception of how bad it is.
What kinds of student discipline problems are we most commonly seeing today?
Raper: My research, which analyzed 2,500 behavior referrals from across the country, showed that most infractions were low-level rule breaking such as throwing trash, shouting and feet in the aisle. What I found was that when drivers let even the most basic rules slide, then the misbehavior escalated.
McClure: Problems range from fairly minor such as gum chewing, eating and drinking to extremely serious such as physical violence, profanity and harassment of other students.
Grinkewicz: Standing up or moving from one seat to another is a common problem. Students need to unwind after a day in class. Perhaps shorter routes could alleviate this situation.
Kalmes: The day-to-day issues have not changed significantly over the years. Students just sometimes make bad choices.
Are drivers and attendants receiving the training they need to handle student behavior problems?
Robinson: You get what you give. The more training the better. But even if drivers only receive the basics, it should at least include something about respect, trust and targeting the most unsafe behaviors first. Drivers often focus on trying to fix too many issues at once — the child hitting or throwing something is more dangerous than the child using profanity.
Raper: Training is so diversified across the country that it’s hard to speak in generalities. If a district provides classroom instruction in management techniques and discipline policies, time for drivers to exchange ideas and ride-along consultation to drivers to help with implementation, then the training is adequate. Unfortunately, most districts don’t have the personnel or the budget for this.
Smith: It varies by location. The authority of school bus operators in some states is controlled by school districts. Training is quite different when school bus operators, under the guidance approved by the school district, handle student discipline matters themselves.
Kalmes: Some people have a gift for working with students. For others it is more of a challenge. It would be great to have sufficient resources to be able to provide more one-on-one training.
How do parents play a role in discipline policies? Are parents harder to cooperate with now than in the past?
Kalmes: Discipline policies are more effective with supportive parents. Most parents are willing to work with us to improve bus behavior. But with the increase in one-parent families or families where both parents work, it has become more difficult to get their cooperation.
McClure: Some parents are quick to blame the driver or the school district for “picking on” or “singling out” their child. A well-defined set of rules and penalties for violating those rules along with a school district willing to enforce the policies can help tremendously.
Robinson: Most schools and districts have parent involvement through either a site governance team or policy board. It’s important to remember that informed, knowledgeable parents are not the enemy.
Smith: The adage that discipline starts at home is no longer true. If it were, discipline problems would be minimal. Some of our younger parents intimidate school bus operators to the point where they have literally boarded the bus to confront the operators.
Raper: If parents aren’t cooperative with transportation issues, in my opinion, part of the problem belongs to the transportation department. The school transportation industry is not very good at public relations. We don’t always let parents know what our expectations are, what constitutes safe behavior and why school buses are so safe. A beginning-of-the-year letter really isn’t enough to educate parents. Again, because of budgetary and time constraints, it’s virtually impossible to run a safety campaign while also keeping the buses running safely and on schedule.
Describe the level of cooperation between your department and school administrators in student management.
Grinkewicz: If administrators need our help, we are there. Sometimes, we have our street supervisors follow some school buses just to “eyeball” the situation and let the principal know exactly what is happening on the bus.
Robinson: The schools have the last word in discipline. Transportation personnel can make recommendations, but administration will make the call. If a student’s behavior doesn’t change, then transportation works closely with the schools to develop behavioral intervention plans that help the student see the connection between the bus and the classroom. More time for drivers to observe classroom behavior and school interaction would be a welcome change, as would each school having only one person who is assigned the task of discipline.
Kalmes: We have a field safety supervisor assigned to each of our school attendance areas. One of their many job functions is to visit schools and work with principals to solve transportation-related issues. If I could make changes, I would add staff at the schools and in the transportation department.
How has video surveillance changed student discipline?
McClure: We hope for cameras to be a deterrent to bad behavior, but we don’t consider videotape as proof of misbehavior. A classroom teacher is not required to send video evidence to the principal when he or she sends a student to the office for misbehavior, and we do not require that of bus drivers either. Video is used primarily to monitor students suspected of violating rules or to point out where students were seated during a given incident.
Smith: Video surveillance is not as effective as it is perceived to be. Some students misbehave regardless. If schools don’t discipline effectively based on evidence in video surveillance, students will continue to misbehave. Robinson: I think it has certainly served as a deterrent, and perhaps even de-escalated certain episodes, but I don’t think it works in isolation.
Kalmes: We have had cameras installed for about a decade (ever since we found a system to work in cold, dark winter conditions). They are definitely a deterrent.
Grinkewicz: Video surveillance allows us to get the school administrator a tape of a student’s misbehavior. The administrator is able to confront the student and allow that student to view the infraction. It’s difficult to argue with a videotape, and the student is disciplined accordingly with the offense. Parents are notified and usually the problem stops.
What innovative programs or special policies do you use to improve student discipline on the bus?
Grinkewicz: In Philadelphia, we like to use preventive maintenance when it comes to improving student discipline on the school bus. Our school bus safety team visits schools daily to provide training on how to have a safe ride. We start at the pre-K level and work our way up to the eighth grade. The hour-long program uses posters, videos, songs, games and lots of interaction with the students to get our message across. This program has been active for 14 years and visits about 150 schools yearly.
Robinson: Any policy that directly affects classroom privileges is great. Having a strong connection between the bus and the classroom makes all the difference.
Raper: In general, we are asking drivers to do too much in expecting safe driving practices, keeping to the route times and managing large numbers of students. We need to put assistants on all buses, not just special-needs buses.
Kalmes: We developed a student rights and responsibilities document several years ago that takes a hard line on discipline issues. And we developed a safety program using a talking school bus called Little Yellow. We also received a COPS grant, and we now have two police officers assigned to each of our high school attendance areas. There are a total of 12 officers, a sergeant and a captain working under the grant. Officers are housed in the schools and work with the district on a number of issues including school transportation. They work with students in an effort to reduce crime. The officers will also assist in traffic enforcement on school grounds and in school zones and follow up on motorists reported to have passed stopped school buses.
Smith: In Savannah, when a student has been suspended from the school bus, the parent must ride with the student to school on the first day that student returns to the bus. Additionally, the deputy superintendent of schools has personally taken rides on school buses that have been identified as problem buses. As a direct result of his actions, the school board has been more supportive of school bus operators.
Are there any tools, products, technology, training techniques or policies that would help operators deal with today’s kids?
Smith: School districts need to standardize discipline procedures. Allowing school bus operators to be more involved in the process is a must. Continued violation of rules should lead from suspension to revocation of riding the school bus. Riding the school bus is a privilege, not a right.
Kalmes: Some districts now use computerized referral systems. We have not yet taken that step, but I believe that transmitting information electronically can speed up the process, which will provide more timely feedback for students.
Robinson: Any technology, tracking or training is helpful. There are products out there that claim to take the behavior burden out of your hands, but I’m not sure that we would want that.
Raper: We need clear rules, reasonable consequences, quick responses to small infractions, praise for positive behavior and consistency in the delivery of praise and discipline. How can one person implement a solid student management system and drive at the same time?
Grinkewicz: Instead of referrals being just a checklist of infractions, drivers should write about specific instances of negative behavior. This helps school administrators because it speaks directly to the problem and removes minor problems from the discipline box. And it becomes advantageous for the driver to re-mediate lesser problems rather than writing them up. I have noticed that some districts use video and radio to soothe students. This might work, but with mixed-grade groupings, finding something suitable for all students could be a problem.
McClure: Having one person handle conduct referrals gives bus drivers the satisfaction of knowing something was done in a timely manner. When two or three administrators at each school in a district handle bus discipline, punishment is vastly inconsistent and the driver may receive little or no feedback regarding any action taken. Also, programs to develop safe riding habits in elementary schools would help raise a generation of responsible bus riders and greatly reduce the number of serious discipline problems.
What do you see as the future of discipline on the school bus?
Robinson: The more people realize that what happens on the bus can make or break a child’s day in school, the more you will see the connection between the bus and the classroom. The school bus driver, as well as all of us, is in the business of education.
Grinkewicz: The future of discipline on school buses holds more training for the drivers, higher expectations for the students and, when possible, shorter routes.
McClure: The future lies within the willingness of school districts to implement and enforce policies that make riding a school bus safer. Proper driver training is important, but training for parents and students is equally important.
Smith: Student discipline must remain in the hands of the local school district and the school bus operators. Leave the federal government out of it and allow school principals the opportunity to do their jobs.
2. Empowering drivers
Oceanside (Calif.) Unified School District — According to recently retired transportation director John Farr, Oceanside is “one of only a few districts in the country that enables drivers to administer their own discipline.” Based on a “due process” system, drivers have the full support of district administration to make their own decisions on how to discipline riders.
3. Supervisors and mentors
Rogers (Ark.) Public Schools — Student discipline problems are addressed by a system with one full-time student discipline supervisor who acts as liaison between drivers, parents and administrators. The district also employs seven mentor drivers, each responsible for assisting a group of other, less experienced drivers on discipline and safety issues. Says Michael McClure, discipline supervisor, “The system gives a level of support and stability for drivers, providing a safer, more enjoyable ride to and from school for everyone.”
4. Jury of peers
Greenville (S.C.) County Schools — Students charged with non-violent crimes on school grounds or school buses — disturbing school, petty larceny, vandalism or interfering with the operation of a school bus — are eligible to have their cases heard by a jury of other students in youth court. Though this is a district or school-level program, transportation departments play a major role since many offenses are committed on or around buses.
5. Zero tolerance
Savannah-Chatham School District, Savannah, Ga. — The school bus discipline policy is basically a “behave or find another ride” system, in which misbehaving children can be instantly removed from the bus without warnings. They are not eligible to return until the parent has signed a behavior agreement.
6. Committee investigation
Broward County Schools, Oakland Park, Fla. — The school district assigned a group of employees to serve on a student conduct committee, charged with implementing a district-wide school bus discipline program. The goal is to root out school-to-school inconsistencies and keep offenses and punishments balanced across the large school district.
7. When all else fails...
Isle of Wight, United Kingdom — It probably won’t ever be adopted in North America, but a school district in England has turned to humiliation as a means of discipline. The district has resorted to forcing severely misbehaving children to ride a bright pink bus to school. The program, dubbed the Pink Peril, aims to embarrass students into obeying the rules. Never before has school bus yellow looked so good.