Tackling School Bus Bullying

Kelly Roher, Assistant Editor
Posted on November 1, 2007

In August, students in an Ohio city were riding a school bus when a boy took a video game from one of his peers and taunted him. The boy attempted to retrieve his game, but his aggressor tripped him and then began laughing. When the student got up, his aggressor’s demeanor changed — the boy had a bloody nose.

The driver attempted to assess the situation from her rearview mirror but stopped when she realized she ran a red light and was going to hit the truck in front of her. She tried to brake but was too late — she slammed into the truck head-on.

This incident demonstrates the damaging effects of student misbehavior and bullying onboard school buses. Fortunately, it is only a fictional scenario from Tears on the Highway, a film directed by Thomas Brown. Brown is a filmmaker who partnered with Zanesville (Ohio) City Schools to educate its students about the hazards of bullying.

Film is just one medium the district is utilizing to facilitate a safe environment and alleviate bullying onboard its school buses. The district and others around the country follow anti-bullying protocol and are employing innovative techniques to assuage this common problem.

Bus bullying abounds
In late July, ABC7 News reported that a San Mateo, Calif., student was attacked on a school bus last November. The incident was captured on a cell phone camera and was posted on the Internet sites MySpace and YouTube shortly thereafter.

According to the victim’s mother, the incident and its subsequent posting online have significantly impacted her daughter. She became depressed, and the news station reported that she was fearful of going to class and dropped out of school. The girl’s mother told the station, “She doesn’t want to leave the house. She’s afraid that the girls are going to come after her again.”

Bullying on buses is a global problem. In April, BBC News reported that 11-year-old Ben Vodden hanged himself late last year after enduring extensive name-calling while on his school bus. It also reported that the inquest for the case was told that Vodden’s bus driver was allegedly responsible for some of the name-calling. While the driver admitted calling the victim several of the alleged names, he classified it as “banter” that the two had shared and no further actions were taken against him because “it was the driver’s word against [Vodden’s].”

In August, Gulf News reported that a sixth-grader who attends a school in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, had to change schools after he was beaten up for refusing to allow an older student to take his seat.

“There was a group of four senior pupils who [used] to take the same bus to school,” the boy told Gulf News. “They were from grades 9 and 10. One of them asked me to vacate my seat, and when I refused, they started boxing my ears.”

Short- and long-term repercussions
In addition to physical damage, bullying can inflict severe emotional damage on all children involved. According to Dr. Ellen deLara, a family therapist, faculty member at Syracuse University’s School of Social Work, and a faculty fellow at Cornell University, bullied children tend to experience anxiety and, like the student in San Mateo, experience depression and are inclined to skip school. Moreover, kids who witness bullying but do not know what to do about it, or know what to do but fail to act, often feel guilty. She says bullies can also suffer from anxiety.

DeLara has been researching bullying and school violence for 10 years. She became involved in this field of study after her own children were harassed. Her research focuses on how, sometimes, the school system inadvertently supports a hostile environment. By extension, she studies bullying on buses because she views the bus as an integral part of students’ school day. “I want school administrators to become more aware of the problems that drivers are facing — they can’t just see school bus bullying as separate from the rest of the day,” she says.

Dr. Nancy Blackwelder, an international staff development specialist, teaches classes on student behavior management, one of which covers bullying prevention. Blackwelder explains that many children become bullies because they have been victims of bullying themselves. “As a result, they gain a form of control by doing the bullying,” she says.

Blackwelder says that there are two main types of bullying — direct and indirect. Direct bullying involves inflicting physical damage on the victim, such as hitting or kicking. Indirect (or subtle) bullying involves engaging in activities that harm the victim emotionally, such as spreading rumors about the victim or intentionally excluding the victim from social situations.

Blackwelder says that individuals can experience “devastating feelings of loneliness and abandonment” long after they finish school as a result of being bullied. She also reveals that a victim’s anxiety and stress can interfere with all aspects of his or her life and, as evidenced from the incident in England, can lead to suicide.

Bullies can also experience lifelong side effects. In addition to anxiety, Blackwelder says that the bullying behavior may extend into his or her adult life. “The individual may exercise verbal, emotional and physical abuse on those around him or her,” she says.

How to approach the problem
It is important for adults and, more specifically, drivers to be equipped with tools to help prevent and curtail bullying on their buses.

Blackwelder is in the process of releasing a one-hour video on bullying and harassment (Bullies/Harassment). In it, she discloses the characteristics of bullies and victims, then discusses the long-term consequences for their behavior. She also offers strategies for preventing bullying and assisting victims with self-esteem and conflict-resolution issues.

Blackwelder suggests that while it is important to work with bullies to help them change their behavior, it is equally important to spend time with victims when bullying has been exposed. “Once you’re a victim of bullying, you can’t get out from under it — it’s a cycle,” Blackwelder says. “Adults need to help the victims realize that they have other options — they don’t have to be a victim.”

According to Blackwelder, 80 percent of students do not take part in bullying, but they also do not report such incidents; in this way, they are tacitly approving the bullies’ behavior. She suggests that bus drivers should appeal to that 80 percent of students. “Peer pressure is a huge deterrent when it comes to bullying,” Blackwelder explains. “If enough kids tell a person that what they’re doing isn’t right, the bullying can be stopped.”

DeLara has interviewed many students to uncover what they believe are the best methods to prevent bullying on school buses. “Students wish their drivers would intervene [when bullying occurs],” she says. “Of course, they realize that the drivers are trying to keep the bus safely on the road, so they suggest that there should be another adult present on the bus.”

DeLara reasons that some school districts cannot afford bus monitors. Therefore, she believes that there are things drivers can do to help prevent incidents from occurring. First, deLara advocates creating a warm and inviting environment in the school bus. She has found that 10 percent of students say that their bus driver is the person they talk to if they need help solving a problem. “Some kids don’t come from very good homes, so if they get on a bus and their driver greets them and gives them attention, the kids will feel safe and feel like this is an adult who cares about them,” she says.

DeLara also urges drivers to make their voices heard. “Oftentimes drivers feel like what they have to say goes unattended to. They may be having a problem with a particular kid on a chronic basis, but they can’t get anyone to pay attention to them, even after they file the disciplinary report,” she reveals. To remedy this, she says it is crucial for drivers to get informed about bullying and gather the support of their managers. “Drivers need to not just complain among themselves about the problem,” says deLara. “They need to get a coalition of people together, gain the support of their managers, go to school administrators and say ‘We want to see some changes.’ The only way to move any system is with the concerted effort of a group of people.”

Furthermore, deLara suggests that drivers should have a representative on their school’s safety planning team. “Each year, schools involve teachers, administrators and someone from the community in their safety planning team, but they really need to have bus drivers and students on that team in an ongoing fashion,” she says. “If they don’t include the drivers and students, they’re missing the perspectives of a whole segment of the population that they’re coming up with a safety plan for.”

Michael Dorn, executive director of Safe Havens International, a nonprofit school safety center based in Macon, Ga., has trained bus drivers on bullying prevention for many years. In addition to establishing a no-tolerance attitude toward bullying, he urges drivers to pay attention to students’ demeanors (body language, facial expressions, composure) when they enter and exit the school bus. “Students who are chronically bullied rarely tell an adult while they’re in school, usually because they believe that the adults don’t care or can’t do anything about the problem,” he says. “The more drivers reach out to their students, the more inclined a child will be to approach the driver if he or she is having a problem.”

Dorn also advocates maintaining discipline aboard the bus. “Bullying tends to occur more frequently and more severely in locations where children are not disciplined as much as they should be,” he explains, “so it’s critical for drivers to maintain discipline within the realm that they are authorized to do so.”

Cassandra Ingham works as an educational institutions staff specialist for Utica National Insurance in New Hartford, N.Y. Ingham has hosted numerous bullying awareness, intervention and prevention workshops for staff members in the schools that Utica National insures. Ingham says one of the most proactive things a driver can do with respect to bullying is pull over and intervene immediately if he or she notices bullying occurring. “It’s called the ‘teachable moment’ because it’s a time when the driver can point out the problematic behavior and inform the child that what they’re doing is wrong,” she explains.

If a driver is unable to intervene immediately, Ingham recommends issuing a verbal warning to the student doing the bullying and then notifying the appropriate school official about the incident.

Districts take action
Pupil transportation officials do not take school bus bullying lightly. Jeff Porter, transportation supervisor for Jenison (Mich.) Public Schools, says that his district “bully-proofed” itself five years ago after drivers reported a substantial number of concerning incidents. The bully-proofing was a district-wide effort wherein its staff learned about the different types of bullying, learned what to look for as far as student behavior is concerned and then familiarized themselves with bullying prevention tactics.

In conjunction with this effort, the district has a zero-tolerance attitude toward bullying — district staff members tell the students if their behavior is unacceptable. “The more subtle forms of bullying are the easiest to deal with because the students often don’t realize that what they’re doing is considered bullying,” says Porter. “But when we talk to them about it and hit the right button, their behavior is usually not a problem after that.”

Porter is also having his drivers read a book written by deLara and Dr. James Garbarino titled And Words Can Hurt Forever: How to Protect Adolescents from Bullying, Harassment, and Emotional Violence; a first edition was published by Free Press in 2001. Porter says the drivers’ response has been positive. “The drivers are enjoying the book,” he says. “Every month we talk about bullying, the scenarios mentioned in the book, how they relate to our district and what we can do to alleviate those problems.”

Porter says that reading the book has made his drivers more aware of the subtle forms of bullying, and they are more inclined to stop it. “I have some drivers who are on the timid side and who, prior to reading this book, would tend to ignore the more subtle forms of bullying,” he reveals. “I don’t think they’re ignoring those behaviors now because they realize that if they ignore it, they’re contributing to the problem.”

Several years ago, Jim Ellis, transportation director at Moravia (N.Y.) Central School District, wrote the New York State Education Department (NYSED) bullying curriculum. Ellis says he focused on conveying the importance of driver awareness. “The campaign for the curriculum was called ‘Not on My Bus.’ The idea was to advocate a no-tolerance policy with respect to bullying on buses,” he says. “We also asked drivers to be cognizant of target kids, those who are prime targets for bullies, and to make an effort to provide a safe environment for them.”

Although his curriculum is no longer in place (the NYSED changes its in-service curriculums annually), his message did not go unheard. He says that several drivers at his district took his message to heart. One snapped photos of all her students and posted them inside her bus. Ellis says this helped create a familial atmosphere and has cut down on the students’ propensity to bully one another. Another driver, Suzanne Stayton, has had her students create a list of putdowns and has this list posted in her bus. Students are not permitted to say those words on her bus, and this has engendered a positive, respectful atmosphere.

At Orange (Calif.) Unified School District, one of the first methods employed for bullying prevention is to emphasize to students that drivers are trustworthy. “Students are reminded to view school district adults, including their bus drivers, as trusted individuals whom they can go to if they feel at risk or threatened,” says Ellen Johnson, transportation supervisor. She adds that district personnel make it known to students that when they feel they are being treated inappropriately by their peers, they are encouraged to seek help from them; to that end, staff members are trained to remain confidential to discourage retaliation to the bullied victim.

Johnson says that the district’s drivers also receive awareness training, where they are taught to watch for signs that signify a student may be experiencing bullying. In addition to anxiety, these signs include shyness, insecurity and cautious behavior. “Drivers also use seating charts and regularly change seat assignments if they suspect that a student may be being bullied,” she says.

Finally, in the event that bullying occurs on a school bus, drivers are required to complete a Bus Conduct Report. “This citation keeps the lines of communication open between the driver, staff, district administrators and parents,” Johnson explains, “and by increasing awareness and maintaining open communication, we increase the comfort level of the students while they are on our buses.”

Student awareness, behavior management
Providing awareness and/or prevention and intervention training for drivers is just one strategy that can be used to address bullying. Brown’s anti-bullying film is geared toward educating fifth- to eighth-graders at Zanesville City Schools. The founder of the Broken Toy Project, which is an effort to bring bullying awareness to students through films and workshops, Brown has a personal history with the subject.

“I was picked on severely as a kid,” he says. “As an adult, it made me angry that we’re calling it a ‘part of growing up.’ I [wanted to] change this perception, so I started making films about it.”

Tears on the Highway was shot using students who attend schools within the district. Brown says the film is rather intense, but he strove to depict the bus accident realistically in order to get his message across. “I really went for the gusto because I want to reach kids on a different level,” Brown explains. “I want them to realize that their behavior impacts others and that bullying is dangerous.”

Kevin Appleman, the district’s coordinator of operations and student services, says that the film was made as a general precaution. “It will help us convey to the younger students that it’s important to behave while riding a school bus,” he says.

Appleman says the district plans to show the film to students within the fifth- to eighth-grade range because these are the students who tend to have a propensity toward bullying. He says that the district may also show it to older students if it feels it is necessary.

In addition to the film, Appleman says the district has cameras installed on its buses to help monitor students’ behavior; it has implemented a safety program as well. In this program, drivers are trained on how to respond in the event of a bullying incident on their bus. “Our drivers are great at de-escalating problems,” Appleman says. “Darrell Lear [the district’s transportation supervisor] has told them it’s important to stay calm because yelling back will only make things worse and entice the kids to cause more problems.”

The district has also implemented the Athletes Against Bullying program. As part of this program, the Ohio High School Athletic Association has allowed district officials to put patches on the students’ uniforms. Appleman says the district is implementing this program with high school-level students. “It teaches the students about leadership because it enables them to tell kids to stop if they see something problematic occurring,” Appleman says. “The program promotes treating people with respect.”

Other districts are implementing additional strategies as well. Warren Roaf, principal at Mount Anthony Union Middle School (MAUMS) in Bennington, Vt., says that the Mount Anthony Union School Board has allotted him $15,000 to place paraprofessionals on the district’s buses. So far, Roaf has placed two paraprofessionals on the district’s buses on a rotating basis. “We weren’t, and aren’t, having bullying problems, but I wanted to be proactive and prevent anything from happening,” he says.

Parent requests also influenced Roaf’s decision to take this step. MAUMS, which was a seventh- and eighth-grade-based middle school for many years, recently began accepting sixth-grade students. In the wake of this change, parents were concerned that the younger children could run into problems while riding with the older students. “Also, younger students need a higher level of supervision,” Roaf says, “so we looked at a number of ways that we could support the parents’ request and ultimately came up with placing paraprofessionals on the buses.”

The two paraprofessionals who work on the buses were hired from within the district. Roaf and Cindy Dufour, manager of Dufour Tours Inc.’s Bennington, Vt., school bus dispatch office, selected them after they interviewed for the position. Dufour says that she chose them based on their desire to improve student safety onboard the buses. “These individuals have strong personalities, and I knew they weren’t going to put up with any misbehavior,” Dufour says. “They’re interested in student safety and are concerned about the dangerous behavior that can occur in school buses.”

The paraprofessionals, who received extensive training after initially becoming employed by the district in order to learn how to work with students, serve as “another set of eyes” for the drivers. “They’re there to make sure that something doesn’t develop in the first place,” Roaf says, “but if something were to develop, having them on the buses would allow us to get more accurate information because the driver can’t see everything that goes on behind him or her.” Dufour agrees. She also notes that they, like the bus driver, are authorized to fill out a referral form if they see or hear bullying or disruptive behavior.

Because this system is in its infancy, Roaf says the district will spend the next year evaluating its effectiveness. If, after the evaluation, Roaf feels it is necessary to place more paraprofessionals on the district’s buses, the school board has said it will provide him with additional funding.

Northwest R-I School District in High Ridge, Mo., is also facing bullying head-on. Dr. Kevin Carl, assistant superintendent of funds and facilities for the district, says it is in the process of installing full-color digital cameras (which also have the capacity to record sound) on its 110 buses. Carl anticipates having the installations complete by the end of the first semester.

“The cameras give the driver a picture of the students as they enter the bus, and then they also give the driver and students a picture of the students while they’re sitting in the bus,” he says. He adds that the cameras will function as an additional safety measure for the students and drivers; by extension, if bullying incidents occur, the cameras will provide an accurate account of what happened. The cameras are not, however, meant to be a remedy for bullying. “We believe that the cameras will be a good deterrent for bullying, but it’s just one step,” Carl says.

The district is also utilizing the Character Plus Program, a character-building program offered to schools in the St. Louis area. One of its objectives is to educate students on what bullying looks like, as well as how they should respond and whom they can report to if they are being bullied.

Lastly, BusRadio was installed in the district’s buses in September. “This addresses the bullying in a more proactive way; the cameras are a more reactive step because the bullying will have already occurred by the time we view it on the tapes,” Carl says. BusRadio is a combination of age-appropriate music and public service announcements that is played in school buses while transporting students. Carl says the public service announcements will remind students about bus safety and also remind them about the things that they are learning in the Character Plus Program.

Carl believes that BusRadio will improve student behavior and decrease bus bullying. “We’re very optimistic that this will have a positive impact on students,” he says. “BusRadio has done quite a few studies and has found that if students are engaged in activities that are of interest to them, they most likely won’t engage in undesirable behavior.”

Like Northwest R-I School District, Richland School District Two in Columbia, S.C., has digital cameras on its buses. Wendell Shelton, transportation manager at the district, says the surveillance system was installed on its 98 buses several years ago.

Used as a deterrent for bullying, Shelton says the district chose the digital video recorder (DVR) system due to its multiple features and its high sound and picture quality. “The cameras allow us to display students’ behavior to our school administrators, and if the behavior is indicative of bullying, the consequences can be more appropriate than they would be if we didn’t have a video record of the behavior,” he says.

The district’s drivers have also benefited from having the DVR system in the buses. “The most common thing we hear from drivers when they radio in is that they’ll need to review the video when they come in because they know something is going on behind them but they can’t catch it in their rearview mirrors,” Shelton says.

Additional resources
There are numerous resources school districts can utilize to educate their drivers about bullying prevention. For instance, Coastal Training Technologies Corp., based in Virginia Beach, Va., has produced a video titled Breaking Up Fights on the Bus. Chris Scaglione, the company’s product and marketing manager, says that this tutorial is available on VHS and DVD and will soon be available in the company’s online format, ClarityNet HD.

Breaking Up Fights on the Bus discusses verbal and physical techniques for stopping fights on school buses,” Scaglione says. “Drivers are taught the proper forms of intervention as well as the improper forms so that they don’t cause injury to themselves or to the students involved.” He adds that with the DVD version, district officials are able to customize the PowerPoint slides according to their district’s policies.

Scaglione urges districts to customize the company’s DVDs and online courses. “While our products are informative, they’re really a platform for schools to build upon,” he says. “We expect schools to insert their own rules and policies after viewing the DVDs and taking the online courses, because each district is different.”

Coastal Training also offers a course called Bullying Prevention: Taking Action. Scaglione says this tutorial covers verbal, physical, psychological and cyberbullying and then offers strategies on how to prevent and intervene during each of these types of incidents.

In 2005, Ellis made a 30-minute training video called Growing Respect on Your Bus while working at the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute, based in Syracuse, N.Y. He says the video provides drivers with traditional student management tips and emphasizes the importance of establishing a respectful tone onboard a school bus. “It also discusses that it is important for drivers to be aware of anything that might be troubling their students and, if they suspect a student is being bullied, to talk to him or her,” Ellis says.

Ingham and deLara are two of the subject matter experts featured in the video. “Drivers provided good insight on effective bullying intervention methods as well,” Ingham says. “A big part of what the video conveys is that drivers must send the message that bullying onboard school buses will not be tolerated.”

In addition to receiving the appropriate training, tenacity is essential in combating bus bullying — it will not be reduced without a continued effort, not just from drivers, but from school officials as well. “School bus bullying is part of a larger problem within the school system as a whole,” deLara says, “so I feel it’s critical for drivers to receive extensive support to help them deal with this issue.”

Respect, trust are key for bullying prevention
Suzanne Stayton, a school bus driver for Moravia (N.Y.) Central School District, discusses her approach to student behavior management.

At the beginning of each school year, I tell the kids I won’t put up with bullying. I talk to them on an even level because we’re all equal and I want them to understand what I’m saying. It’s important to establish a relationship based on mutual respect.

My students and I created a list of bus rules based on this idea. Some of them are:
1. Respect each other.
2. Respect your bus.
3. Respect your bus driver.
4. No fighting.

The list also contains words that aren’t allowed on my bus [swear words and derogatory terms] because they’re improper and could hurt someone’s feelings. The kids came up with those words because they hear them at school.

I think trust cuts down on bullying, too. My students know they can come to me if they need help. Many of them come from foster care and sometimes the only way these types of kids know how to deal with problems is to bully people, but if you understand what they’ve been through and you give them positive attention, they’ll be less inclined to bully.

Related Topics: behavior management, bullying

Comments ( 0 )
More Stories
File photo courtesy Des Moines (Iowa) Public Schools

Fed Mandate for Lap-Shoulder Belts Looks Unlikely

It was no big surprise that NTSB’s latest report calls for lap-shoulder belts on school buses. What was surprising was how the agency decided to direct that recommendation: not to the feds, but to the states.


Flush Mounting Bracket

A new flush mounting bracket from Pro-Vision Systems is designed to allow bus cameras to be mounted recessed into the bulkhead of a school bus or a transit bus.

Be the First to Know

Get the latest news and most popular articles from SBF delivered straight to your inbox. Stay on top of the school bus industry and don't miss a thing!