Rage Against the Machine: Disarming Hostile People

Thomas McMahon, Associate Editor
Posted on August 1, 2004

School bus drivers should not need to worry about being attacked on the job, especially by parents. After all, these drivers are paid to protect their children in the morning and afternoon of each school day.

However, this statement also reveals the sensitivity of the driver’s position, especially in the eyes of parents. Their kids are precious to them, and any possible threat to their well-being can trigger some parents into doing irrational things.

This is not to say that parents are the only purveyors of hostility toward bus drivers, nor that most parents are likely to become hostile with the drivers. Most likely, a very low percentage of them will.

Drivers should not be paranoid every time they open the bus door. But the sad truth is that these attacks happen (see column following article for some recent incidents), which means that transportation personnel need to understand them, be prepared for them and take measures to prevent them.

Roots of rage
Why are some people so inclined to become angry at the school bus and its driver? The reasons abound.

According to Bruce Gibbons, transportation director at Park City (Utah) School District, large vehicles become a frustration for most people because they’re often slow and hard to see around. “School buses fit into this category of large vehicles, but they also stop to let children off,” he says. “And this takes even more valuable time for most motorists.”

Dr. Brad Bushman of the University of Michigan’s Institute for Social Research, who studies causes and consequences of aggression, says that as time goes on, people become less and less patient. “It used to be that people would get out a pot, put some oil in it, put kernels in it, shake it up and pop the popcorn,” he says. “Now, if they can’t have it in under two minutes, they’re pissed off.”

Another factor that can lead to hostility is the public’s misconceptions about pupil transportation. According to Ray Tinkey, driver trainer at First Student’s Woodburn, Ore., operation, many parents become frustrated with the bus system because they don’t understand how it really works. “Parents see buses going in every which direction, and none of them are stopping in front of their house, while their child has to walk some distance to catch the bus,” he explains.

On topics such as this, the public often feels it should have a say in student transportation operations, Tinkey says. “They do, after all, pay taxes and feel like they pay our wages.”

The sensitivity of pupil transportation for parents is another consideration. Sharon Waterman, instructor at San Diego Unified School District, says “anything involving schoolchildren can speedily become an emotionally charged issue.”

The factors aren’t all on one side of the fence, though. James Kraemer, director of and a veteran school bus driver, says the “I own the road” attitude that some bus drivers usurp creates unnecessary traffic delays and annoys motorists. “Sharing the road should apply to school buses as well [as other vehicles],” says Kraemer. “To ease anger, bus drivers must be the most courteous drivers on the road.”

To prevent hostility, Kraemer recommends timing stops to let other motorists continue, pulling off to let traffic pass and not crossing children in boarding or departing areas where traffic is heavy.

Bus drivers must also realize that a confrontational person may only be in a temporarily aggravated state. Then he or she will be in a better position to calm that person down.

Block hostility
If a confrontation begins at a bus stop, the first step a driver can take in trying to avoid a conflict is to start things out on the right foot. Be on guard mentally, but don’t immediately treat a situation as if it’s going to turn hostile.

“If a parent or any other person comes to the bus with concerns, the bus driver has to show compassion and interest in their concerns,” says Tinkey.

When any unknown person approaches the bus, the driver’s judgment is put to the test. Waterman says that the situation could range from an adult requesting information on other buses — with no hostile intentions — to someone wanting to confront the driver or a student, engage in gang activity or resolve child custody issues — all potentially hostile situations. “Distinguishing between the two becomes a matter of awareness,” says Waterman.

Whether the service door is open or closed, the driver should try to draw any unknown or obviously dissatisfied customer around to the driver’s window to take care of business, keeping the boarding area clear and reducing students’ exposure to any conflict that may surface.

Tinkey says that to keep matters under control, the driver should give answers based on policies and refer the person to a transportation or school official if necessary. If the situation escalates and the person becomes extremely hostile, the next steps are to secure the bus and call dispatch for assistance.

Kraemer recommends having a business card with contact information for the transportation department ready for those with concerns related to the bus. He says the driver should make it clear that “unless the situation is an actual emergency, the bus stop is the most hazardous place to try solving an issue.” The driver should ask for a number to call after completing the route or give the person the business card.

Adds Waterman, “Keep directing the conversation back to the main point, and suggest how their concerns could be more easily resolved by talking to school personnel or a driver supervisor.”

{+PAGEBREAK+} Disarming tactics
If a person is already at or reaches a level of hostility, there are several methods a driver can employ to try to bring the person back to reason.

Bushman says that “angry people are highly aroused, and the consequence of being highly aroused is that you don’t think clearly and you behave impulsively.” The key, he says, is to get people to calm down so they will think about the consequences of their behavior and be easier to deal with.

Bushman recommends using calming phrases and suggestions, such as, “Looks to me like you need to take some deep breaths.” Though it may come as a reflex, never match the tone of an angry person, which can add to the arousal. “That’s like using gasoline to put out a fire,” Bushman says.

A video camera or decoy box on the bus can be an effective tool to keep someone in check. “Say something like, ‘Excuse me, you need to calm down. As you can see, your behavior is being videotaped and is unacceptable on this bus,’” suggests Bushman.

Another technique is to remind a hostile person who else is watching. Parents especially should reconsider their actions when they realize the effect they could have on the children. “Adults sometimes forget how dramatic an effect their behavior toward other adults can demonstrate respectful conduct for kids to follow,” says Kraemer. “A safe school bus environment requires that policy, expectations and support processes demonstrate adults acting respectfully toward bus drivers and their duties to help keep kids safe.”

Some states have laws related to the topic, such as those on harming school employees or trespassing on the school bus. Transportation departments should take advantage of these laws to inhibit hostile actions.

At Park City School District, signs referring to Utah Code 76-9-107 are posted on the service door of buses. “Drivers are trained to show that to any person trying to get on the bus, and that’s been quite effective,” says Gibbons. “When we get angry parents that step up in the stairwell, we can say, ‘You are trespassing,’ and the law is right there at eye level.”

Bill Cunningham, a driver for the Harrison County School District in Clarksburg, W.Va., points out a state code (61-2-15) regarding assault and battery on school employees. The law specifies jail time and a fine for any person who attempts to “commit a violent injury to the person of a school employee while he or she is engaged in the performance of duties.”

The Marion County Board of Education in Fairmont, W.Va., has written that code directly into its school bus conduct policy. The Wake County Public School System in Raleigh, N.C., posted on its Website a state law regarding interference with school buses.

Steer clear of rage
One of the most potentially dangerous confrontations is the motorist trying to force the bus to stop. While the motorist’s intentions may not immediately be clear, it’s important for the school bus to stay its course if it can safely do so. The driver should radio dispatch a vehicle description and license number as soon as possible, using extra care to avoid a collision with other vehicles.

When a motorist began noticeably following a Park City school bus (see sidebar), the bus driver alerted a dispatcher and carried on with the run. As the motorist became belligerent and attempted to force the bus off the road, the bus driver got back on the radio, and dispatch alerted police.

Gibbons says the critical response in this situation was to contain the problem. Once all the students had been dropped off, the driver went right to the bus yard.

“We confined the situation geographically, manipulating him into a confined area where there was support,” says Gibbons.

In the bus yard, staff came out and dealt with the motorist, who appeared to be highly intoxicated. Gibbons said the man was only agitated when he saw the bus driver — claiming that the bus was driving recklessly — so they kept him out of sight of the driver until police arrived.

Gibbons says it’s important to note that the driver picked up on the motorist’s abnormal behavior early and radioed in quickly — at first just for them to be aware of the situation, then for assistance as he became hostile. “One of the other concerns is what other drivers do as they hear it on the radio,” says Gibbons. “Our procedure is for everyone else to stay off the radio so dispatch can handle it.”

Waterman says drivers should only pull the bus over at designated stops, though other vehicles may try to make them do otherwise. This problem often surfaces in the form of a parent whose child was late for his or her stop. The transportation department deals with this by giving parents information on their responsibility once bus service is scheduled: Students should be at the stop 10 minutes prior to the bus, but parents can take them to the next stop if they are running late.

{+PAGEBREAK+} Be prepared
Dealing with hostility is a broad topic that can be fit into different segments of training, as Waterman does at her district.

“These issues are addressed in at least five different units of instruction: emergency procedures, student loading and unloading, pupil management, special needs and public relations,” she says.

Tinkey put together a course specifically on violence prevention for drivers at his operation. The course delves into such threatening scenarios as hostile people entering the bus, students with weapons and hijackings.

Training on the topic should steer clear of being sensational or overwhelming, but identifying the problem and being honest about its potential is essential. If the class is too restrained, says Kraemer, it can become “of little use other than the bus driver receiving credit for training hours.”

The aftermath
Following any hostile confrontation, there will be loose ends to tie up. If police were called in, they’ll take their own documentation, but Gibbons recommends filling out incident reports in any case, for protection as well as practice.

“We are a public entity, and people view us as having deep pockets whether we have them or not,” says Gibbons. “It is critical that we document.”

Tinkey recommends taking care of documentation as soon as possible so that details are still fresh for those involved. In addition to recording what happened, be sure to include notes on the time of day, location info such as street names and other details relevant to the situation.

It”s also imperative to assess any emotional damage to the driver as well as students aboard the bus. Gibbons said that his department has access to counseling through the district in case of a traumatic event.

Waterman says her district has a crisis response team for such purposes, but knowing when to call in the support requires insight. “Supervisors really need to listen to the drivers when debriefing after a serious situation,” she says.

In addition to evaluating emotional concerns, a debriefing session can be a prime opportunity to discuss how the incident was handled and whether anything should have been done differently.

The incident can also provide fresh fodder for safety meetings, in-service and other training. “Now we have our own story — not just something out of the book,” Gibbons says of the episode at his operation. “We can start using it as a tool.”

Getting the word out
When parents and the rest of the public are informed on bus policies, procedures and related laws, the likelihood of confrontations on the school bus should decrease.

Kraemer of recommends addressing these issues periodically through the press and letters home. A CD on school bus safety that he recently released includes a form for informing parents of ways to keep the bus safe, such as avoiding discussions with the driver at stops. Parents can use the form for complaints or other feedback.

Tinkey says that students often tell their parents of some problem occurring on the bus, and then the parents confront the bus driver during the run (and in front of the students) rather than call the transportation manager. “This can escalate into an explosive situation,” he says. Like Kraemer, he recommends letting parents know who to contact and how to contact them with concerns.

Another way to discourage continued attacks on school bus drivers is to press charges after one happens. “This is an area I won’t mess around with,” says Gibbons. “As a school district, as a department, I want a message out there that this is something you will not do. And that’s where the documentation comes in.”


Rage on the route

Here are some noteworthy examples of attacks on school bus drivers during the past year.
PARK CITY, Utah — A motorist began following a Park City School District bus for no apparent reason. The man drove erratically and swerved into oncoming traffic in attempts to pull the bus over. The bus driver continued to the district transportation yard and parked, keeping the door closed. The motorist stopped and pounded on the bus door in an attempt to board, eventually going through an emergency exit while the bus driver and monitor escaped through the front door. Police arrived and detained the motorist, who was found to be highly intoxicated.

MARION, Ind. — A county councilman admitted to striking a school bus driver after a near-collision between the official’s 80,000-pound grain truck and the school bus. Myron Brankle said the school bus pulled in front of him at an intersection, forcing him to swerve to avoid an accident. He then flagged down the bus and boarded it. After arguing with the driver, Brankle slapped his hand as students looked on. Brankle was originally charged with felony, but the count was reduced to misdemeanors as part of a plea bargain, letting him keep his seat on the Grant County Council.

COOKEVILLE, Tenn. — An angry parent was charged with assaulting a Putnam County Schools bus driver. According to, Scott Webb was infuriated over the bus driver’s alleged mishandling of his son. Webb boarded the bus while it was picking up students and beat the driver to the point of shedding blood, school officials said. The previous day, Webb’s 13-year-old son reportedly came home with bruises on his arm and said the driver had grabbed him for talking. Webb said he complained to the district and police and was shocked when the same driver arrived at the bus stop the next day.

Related Topics: driver handbook/policies, driver training, parent disputes

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