It’s a common story. The bus driver is new to the route and unfamiliar with the middle-schooler sitting in the third seat. She doesn’t notice the bullying that the young girl later reports to her mother. The next morning, the mother enters the bus shouting profanities and threats to the driver for allowing other students to victimize her daughter.
“Do not come in here swearing and threatening me in front of the students. You need to exit my bus now!” the driver fires back. Before the mother leaves the vehicle, she spits on the driver. The driver is shaken by the confrontation and wonders how she will safely complete her run. “I didn’t sign up for this,” she whispers before calling in the incident to her dispatcher.
School bus drivers across the nation will tell you the more challenging aspect of the job is not the driving. It’s the human element, the management of youth misconduct, difficult parents, and a lack of school intervention when assistance is needed. A 2018 study funded by the National Institute of Justice, RTI International, and the National Association for Pupil Transportation, found that bullying, profanity, and rule violations are among the most common misconduct behaviors reported by school bus drivers. In addition, drivers must contend with threats, weapons, student fights, sexual harassment, and volatile, intimidating family members.
While not every disruptive behavior leads to violence, any misconduct is a potential threat, as it is a distraction to safe driving. From the driver’s perspective, paying attention to the behaviors of the students aboard the vehicle must take a close second place to focusing on the road. It’s a balancing act that becomes more difficult with students and families whose behavioral issues are more frequent and severe in nature.
When school bus drivers enter the profession, they require a commercial driver’s license (CDL), background check, and drug screening. There is no mandatory crisis intervention training to manage misconduct and potential violence. But perhaps there should be, particularly when the children causing disruptions have been exposed to traumatic life events and are suffering from the neurobiological consequences of traumatic stress. According to The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), more than two-thirds of children and youth in the U.S. report experiencing at least one of the following traumatic occurrences by age 16:
• Psychological, physical, or sexual abuse.
• Community or school violence.
• Witnessing or experiencing domestic violence.
• A parent with a mental illness or substance addiction.
• National disasters or terrorism.
• Commercial sexual exploitation.
• Sudden or violent loss of a loved one.
• Refugee or war experiences.
• Military family-related stressors (e.g., deployment, parental loss, or injury).
• Serious accidents or life-threatening illness.
When children and their parents experience multiple traumatic events that continue over a period of months or years, the consequences are even more disruptive to their neurobiology. Consider that humans carry a threat response, which is triggered whenever we sense that our lives or the lives of those around us are in danger. This threat response kicks out stress hormones that activate a fight, flight, freeze, or fold response and momentarily deactivates other vital functions, such as the digestive system, immune system, mental reasoning, and creativity.
Ideally, once the threat is over, humans should be able to return to normal functioning. However, if the body hasn’t shaken off those stress hormones, or if the child and/or parent remains in threatening conditions, then the brain will rewire itself to create a synaptic superhighway for immediate and constant stress hormone release. In other words, the body is frequently in fight-or-flight mode, often perceiving threats even where they don’t exist.
Therefore, what appears to be outrageous parental behaviors and poor student conduct may be symptoms of traumatic stress, complex trauma, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Behavioral symptoms of traumatic stress include:
• Inability to concentrate (which may result in not hearing and/or following the rules).
• Irritability and agitation (anxiety symptoms).
• Mood dysregulation (inability to control rage, anger, and sadness).
• Substance abuse (self-medicating to quiet traumatic stress symptoms).
• Compulsive re-enacting (When the victim attempts to get their power back by re-enacting an event. Sometimes the victim puts themselves back in the victim role or casts themselves as the perpetrator).
When drivers are confronted with students or parents’ behavioral symptoms of traumatic stress, basic crisis intervention and de-escalation skills may be more appropriate than the usual tactics used to command and control a group of unruly riders or their family members. Children and adults suffering from traumatic effects are looking to regain lost power from an overwhelming, life-threatening experience. If bus drivers only present themselves as authoritarian figures rather than concerned adults, the child or parent may view them as an opportunity for a fight they can win. The better course is to show empathy and a strong sense of responsibility rather than compete for authority. Additionally, knowing which responses to difficult behaviors are escalators of the situation and which are de-escalators is the key to crisis intervention and conflict management.
Escalators vs. De-escalators
There is no single, guaranteed response to de-escalate a potentially violent youth or their parent. Every situation is unique. It’s important to note that conflicts occasionally occur because the driver happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. However, there are behaviors that are high-percentage escalators of violent conflict and high-percentage de-escalators of violent conflict.
High-percentage escalators include:
These escalators hold true for the student, their parents, and the bus driver. Cornering signals to the brain that there is no escape from a potentially dangerous situation and the best alternative for survival is to fight. Humiliation is an assault to one’s identity. It signals that a physical attack may follow. Ignoring someone signals to them that they’re invisible and without power. Each escalator may spark a conflict. String them together, and it’s explosive.
High-percentage de-escalators show empathy and responsibility:
• Being calm/assertive
• Reflective listening
• Asking opening questions
Humans have mirror neurons, which drive us to mimic each other’s behaviors. When one person gets hyped, if the other person isn’t intentional about their own actions, they will imitate what they see. This is especially true when dealing with children and youth. Using a calm and assertive voice and body language signal non-threatening intent and self-control. Being calm and assertive is the first step to de-escalate.
Informing statements such as, “It’s dangerous for you and the other students to get out of the seat because I’m unable to safely drive when you’re jumping in the aisle,” is an informing statement that gives rationale to directions and requests.
Coupling informing statements with reflective statements help the passenger know they’re being heard and not ignored. “I get your frustration and concern about your daughter being bullied. I’m glad you told me about it. I’m going to keep an eye out for her from now on and keep you posted.”
Opening questions that require more than a “yes” or “no” answer interrupt escalating behavior by re-engaging the student’s cognitive processes and send the message the driver is concerned about them. “What’s going on back there?” “Why were you late for the bus?”
Uniting statements that begin with “we” and “us,” such as, “We all want to get to the school safely, right?” send the message that the driver and the parent/student are on the same team and share a common problem. It is much more difficult for the potential offender to threaten or inflict violence on someone they identify with.
Certainly, not all conflicts can be resolved on the bus with students and parents without assistance from the school district, company, or law enforcement. Communicating to the driver that their safety is as important as the children’s safety and backing that communication up with quick and appropriate response times is as essential as teaching the driver de-escalation skills.
Charlotte DiBartolomeo, M.A.C.T., is CEO and founder of Red Kite Project, a resiliency building firm educating and consulting with high-pressure industries to mitigate the impact of burnout. DiBartolomeo is also part-time faculty at Drexel University where she teaches trauma-informed care.