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May 05, 2011  |   Comments (5)   |   Post a comment

Bullying and Harassment: Thin Line and Thin Ice

An expert on legal issues in school transportation discusses the distinction between bullying and harassment and offers best practices for dealing with both on the bus.

by Peggy A. Burns, Esq.

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Author Peggy Burns says imagining that the bullying and harassment labels go hand in hand will lead to appropriate responses.
<p>Author Peggy Burns says imagining that the bullying and harassment labels go hand in hand will lead to appropriate responses.</p>

What do you really have to know?
Legally speaking, the school bus must be a place of safety; harassment and bullying threaten a safe ride for students. Just as there are "best practices" connected with bus maintenance and driving, the following "best practices" represent your best bet for addressing harassment and bullying in connection with school transportation:

• Younger students and those with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to harassment, raising your obligation to protect their civil rights. Be especially alert to training and reporting responsibilities in those areas. Also, harassment on the basis of sexual orientation continues to be a major concern. Be sure your drivers and attendants verbally intervene and notify supervisors.

• Pay attention to reports from students and parents. Document complaints and observations. Refer them, as appropriate, to the individuals authorized to take further action. Be sure that avenues of communication are open between you and your staff members. Also, information-sharing is a two-way street — school administrators need to know what you know, just as you need to know what they know.

• Follow district policies about harassment and bullying. If you're unsure which applies, resolve conflicts with your supervisors. Document, investigate, communicate, respond.

• The district must take special action when it has knowledge of prior student behaviors or tendencies which forecast future bullying or harassment. Such special action might include, for example:

Removal of barriers to sharing information. I cannot stress this need enough. The laws absolutely support giving educators and support individuals student information that they need to carry out their roles. Train your own team about the need to protect that information when they get it. Take the lead with school administrators in seeking the information you need.

Adding extra adult supervision on the bus — and ensuring that these additional individuals know why they've been assigned, where they should sit and what they should watch for.

Providing information to, and training for, school transportation staff.

Instituting reasonable preventive steps — e.g., seat assignments and separate routing — that demonstrate common-sense measures in anticipation of the potential for trouble.

Regular review of bus rules and expectations with both students and staff.

• Doing nothing is never the right thing - not by school administrators, transportation officials or drivers.

• At a minimum, train drivers and attendants to speak up, and speak promptly, when one student is insulting, demeaning, goading, teasing or intimidating another student. Silence is permission.

• Investigate and document all complaints; second-guess your decisions; follow up on your actions. For the components of "Invincible Investigations," as well as a model transportation harassment report form, go to for free downloads of both documents. 

• Stress with staff the importance of notifying you of all significant incidents. You, in turn, must be sure others at the school and district levels know about the incidents.

Walking that thin line
Bullying isn't new, and harassment isn't yesterday's problem. Worrying less about the labels, and, to be safe, imagining that the two go hand in hand, will lead to appropriate responses ... and that ought to be your real concern.

Peggy Burns is an attorney and consultant with Education Compliance Group Inc. She is the author of four training videos for school bus drivers, including "Putting the Brakes on Harassment." Her new book (with Lisa J. Hudson), Defensible Decisions about Transporting Students with Special Needs: Lessons Learned from Legal Disputes, is available at or by calling (888) 604-6141. Contact Burns by e-mail at [email protected].

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Read more about: bullying, legal issues

I don't get bullying people should all just be peaceful.

Sabrina Perez    |    Dec 14, 2011 03:26 PM

Who is watching the bus driver is a great question when it comes to assault and harrassment of students especially with vulnerable children. I feel that children need better protection when in transport to and from school. Unsupervised school buses provide ample access and opportunity for dangerous behaviors.

Tracy Scanlan    |    Nov 30, 2011 07:49 PM

What do you do if it's the bus driver doing the harassing?

C.Siler    |    Oct 18, 2011 06:03 PM

When happening on the school bus the label would seem irrelevant. What is relevant is dealing immediately with this anomaly, including immediate removal of the bully from the bus environment until resolved. I would think this step to intervening is what so many miss and for that reason end up in litigation.

jkraemer    |    May 08, 2011 02:29 PM

I have a question Illionois currently has bullying law as of 1/1/11 all schools need to post there policies. What happens if a private catholic school doe not have a policy available?

Kelly    |    May 05, 2011 12:15 PM

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