On the morning of Oct. 3, a Bloomfield (N.M.) School District bus pulled up to a stop and picked up a handful of students on their way to school. After boarding, two sisters, ages 13 and 14, sat down calmly and waited for the vehicle to continue along its route. Then they struck. Reaching over the seat in front of them, the sisters grabbed another 14-year-old girl, held her down and proceeded to pummel her with a flurry of flailing punches and kicks.
Though fights on the school bus are nothing new, this particular incident stood out in its ferocity, and it continued for several minutes, despite futile shouts from the bus driver and nominal intervention on the part of the other passengers. The entire confrontation was captured on video by the bus’ video surveillance system.
“This is the first time I’ve seen something like that,” says Joe Rasor, an administrator with the Bloomfield School District. “And this is my 35th year in education.”
With the assailants facing criminal charges and the school district struggling to find answers for an event that has shaken a small, peaceful community, an unfavorable portrait of school buses has been (once again) thrust into the national spotlight. But after a spate of ugly clashes on school buses has made headlines in the past few years, one can be forgiven for revisiting the age-old question of whether school bus violence has gotten worse.
Assessing the problem
What is perhaps most alarming about the Bloomfield incident was the timing. Just one week earlier, the nation was stunned by three disturbing episodes of scholastic gun violence, resulting in at least nine deaths at schools in Colorado, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, respectively.
Overall, ABC News estimates that there have been 25 shootings in or around schools and their facilities in 2006, with nearly a third of them claiming lives.
According to Dr. Ronald Stephens, executive director of the National School Safety Center, the recent spike in school-related violence leads to three central questions —all of them apt for school transportation officials:
• Are schools in America safe?
• Do these acts of violence represent a trend?
• What can be done to prevent these types of incidents?
Examining the first question, it must be said that, all in all, school buses represent one of the safest realms of the academic environment. Based on the number of incidents per miles traveled, violent encounters still represent a relative rarity. Moreover, the problem of youth violence and the struggle to slow it are hardly the sole responsibilities of school transportation planners.
The second question, however, is more vexing. The numbers themselves vary, but a general increase in highly visible incidents seems evident. Various organizations, including the Center for the Prevention of School Violence and KeystoSaferSchools.com, claim that violent incidents in American schools (and on school buses) are steadily on the rise, even while law enforcement agencies report drops in violent crime across the entire population.
With specific regard to school transportation, a recent survey by the National Association of School Resource Officers, a school-based policing organization, stated that 35 percent of its members reported seeing an increase in school bus violence last year.
Responding to the wave of violence, President Bush convened a Summit on School Safety in early October, bringing educators, safety experts and legislators together to discuss ways to reverse these alarming trends. Though no clear solution was discovered, conference presenters gravitated around two primary ways to address the problem — better communications and comprehensive planning.
In her opening speech at the summit, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said it is crucial that school systems have a crisis response plan. She also talked about the importance of communications, citing an incident this year in Green Bay, Wis., where a school shooting was avoided after a student reported to administrators his suspicions that some of his classmates might be planning an attack.
“The failure to talk about the possibility of an incident occurring and the failure to take steps to prevent such an occurrence would be considered negligence in the eyes of most educators, public safety officials, parents, media and courts,” says Ken Trump, president of National School Safety and Security Services. “Talking about the possibility of violence in a balanced and rational way does not create fear, but instead it reduces fear, improves preparedness and has resulted in many plots being foiled thanks to a heightened awareness.”
Trump has developed a safety and security plan specifically for school transportation officials, taking into account a wide range of considerations to improve life on school buses. Trump’s plan incorporates pre-employment screening of drivers, behavior management training, technology, security assessments, emergency preparedness guidelines, law enforcement cooperation, communications, crisis intervention training and much more.
Of course, the key to any violence prevention program starts and stops with the bus driver. “The driver must keep one eye on the road and one eye on the mirror overhead,” says Bonnie Russell, executive general manager of transportation for the Houston Independent School District. “It’s critical for them to have appropriate skills to identify developing problems and to use techniques that are proactive to prevent violence.”
Ultimately, there is no magic panacea for preparing drivers, but, in addition to constant training, emphasizing a proactive attitude and heavy interaction with students can help create a safer environment on the bus. According to one former bus driver, “moving around the bus at the school while kids are boarding, watching, aware and alert, and asking questions concerning possible posturing seem to help in all sorts of ways.”
While years of advancements in technology have raised nearly as many questions as they’ve answered, school administrators and transportation officials have a wide range of options at their disposal through which violent encounters can be potentially prevented or addressed more effectively. Some of the obvious and more common technologies in use today include video surveillance, GPS systems and sophisticated radio systems.
The Bloomfield, N.M., incident demonstrates that video cameras, while serving as a handy deterrent, offer no certain guarantee that school bus passengers will behave. But the video footage could prove to be a useful tool in sorting out the facts of the conflict and in developing protocol to deal with similar incidents in the future.
Still, school districts have only scratched the surface when it comes to the benefits of technology, and, moving forward, more creative applications of technology are sure to play a role in efforts to make the school bus a safer place.
For example, a Needham, Mass.-based company called Bus Radio has developed a broadcast system for school buses that airs a combination of music, public service announcements, safety lessons and advertisements while students ride to and from school (See News Alert). The system also incorporates the use of a “panic button” that drivers can push during a crisis to immediately alert local law enforcement agencies and provide the bus’ whereabouts through a GPS tracking device.
Studies from pilot programs of the system suggest that rates of misbehavior have decreased among students who listen to Bus Radio, which tends to have a pacifying effect on the bus environment, says company president Steven Shulman. “What we are doing is using age-appropriate radio programs and music to soothe the beast on the bus, and, at the same time, offering other safety features that are so important.”
Despite the promise of the concept, controversy abounds. Mansfield (Mass.) Public Schools recently canceled a contract with Bus Radio, which garners its revenue from advertising, after a deluge of parental objections citing a commercialization of the bus ride.
The future of technology on the school bus, it seems, tends to revolve around the integration of multiple cutting-edge gadgets. Having interior and exterior video surveillance units, digital communications and bus-tracking systems integrated into one management program accessible from a remote location provides a streamlined method for monitoring the activities on a school bus. As technology continues to improve, it’s important to remember that no amount of high-tech wizardry can substitute for an alert driver and an established protocol for dealing with unruly bus riders.
Stopping the bleeding
Preparation and prevention are only the first parts of a complete strategy for dealing with school bus violence. Your response to events that do occur is also crucial. While it won’t stop kids from fighting or smuggling weapons onboard, an exceptionally important consideration is what procedures and services are in place to deal with the aftermath of a harrowing incident.
Counseling services and grief management programs are a good start. David Finkelhor, co-director of the Family Research Laboratory at the University of New Hampshire, specializes in the cause and effect of school violence and claims that offering a calming effect can go a long way in dealing with the shockwaves of a particularly ugly episode. “Improved methods for dealing with the shock and grief caused by school killings are helping lighten the burden of tragedy that does occur,” he says.
Additionally, any event on the bus should be properly documented and reported. Having a system for record-keeping helps in the disciplinary process and in determining how to address potential problems in the future. Documentation also aids in protecting a school district from liability in the event of litigation stemming from an incident.
Joey Campbell is a former editor at Bobit Business Media, parent company of SCHOOL BUS FLEET and METRO Magazine.
The following signs do not always indicate the presence of a weapon, but experience has shown that these are the most obvious behaviors of someone who is “holding.”
1. Frequent bodily adjustments: Gun violators in particular will typically touch and/or adjust concealed weapons numerous times during the day. This activity ranges from a subtle tap to a distinct grasp. Violators often make these movements when getting out of a chair or walking up the steps to board the bus.
2. Unnatural gait: Violators may fail to bend their knees because they have rifles or shotguns in their pants. They may also walk uncomfortably because they have guns, knives or other weapons hidden in their boots or shoes causing discomfort.
3. Jacket sag: When you place a handgun in a jacket pocket, the coat typically hangs lower on the side where the weapon is located. In addition, you will often see the fabric pulled tight from the weight of the gun, and the weapon may swing as a violator walks. Often, the outline of the weapon may be observed in the pocket area. In some cases, the violator will attempt to hold or pin the weapon if it begins to swing or beat against their body.
4. Hunchback stride: When trying to conceal a shotgun, rifle or submachine gun under a coat while walking, the butt of the weapon will often cause a noticeable bulge behind the armpit. Additionally, the jacket does not move naturally because it is supported by the outline of the weapon. Also, when someone wears a shoulder holster or straps on a sawed-off rifle, shotgun or submachine gun under his or her arm, a bulge in front of or behind the armpit will often be visible.
5. Weapon outline: An alert officer can often spot the telltale bulge of a weapon or, in some instances, the distinct outline of a handgun, knife or brass knuckles in a violator’s pocket.
6. Visible weapons: Clearly the most reliable of all the indicators is when the weapon can actually be seen. It’s astounding how many times an armed intruder has entered a facility with a rifle or shotgun protruding from under his or her jacket without being observed by staff.
7. Palming: Most often observed with the edged weapon violator but occasionally seen with gun violators, palming behaviors often indicate imminent risk to the observer. The knife violator may run the blade of the weapon up along the arm or behind the leg to conceal it from frontal view. Just before a target is attacked, a violator will also typically have his or her eyes fixed on the intended victim.
Source: Campus Safety Magazine, July/August 2006.