Photo courtesy National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

Photo courtesy National Highway Traffic Safety Administration

In the past few years, several incidents involving fighting or bullying on school buses have made local and national headlines. These events have raised important questions about the prevalence of misconduct on buses, as well as the efforts made by transportation departments toward student management.

Funded by the National Institute of Justice, RTI International and the National Association for Pupil Transportation conducted a two-year study that included a survey of more than 2,500 district-level transportation directors to understand the nature of misconduct on buses, the approaches used to create safe and positive school bus environments, and the challenges of transportation-based behavior management. The following are highlights from the study’s core findings.

1. Most common forms of misconduct: violations of basic rules, profanity, and bullying.

About two out of three respondents indicated that violations of basic rules (e.g., yelling, moving seats) were common, and one out of four reported that bullying was common. Fewer than 15% reported that fighting, substance use, sexual harassment, or sexual activity were common. Although respondents believed that most infractions were minor, they also emphasized that low-level violations can have dangerous implications because they threaten the driver’s ability to focus on the road. Many respondents also believed that student behavior has become significantly worse during their careers.

2. District composition associated with misconduct levels.

Large and urban districts and those with more minority or special-education students were found to have the highest levels of perceived and documented misconduct. Respondents also underscored several conditions that promote misbehavior, including long or afternoon commutes and crowded buses.

3. Several student management strategies employed.

On average, transportation departments use more than 12 behavioral management strategies on their buses. In addition to disciplinary referrals, the most common strategies include encouraging drivers to know their students, promoting relationships between drivers and school officials, allowing drivers to pull over when misconduct occurs, using assigned seating, and installing surveillance cameras. Larger districts and those with more special-education students tend to use a greater variety of strategies.

4. Bus monitors and surveillance cameras seen as most effective strategies.

The strategies perceived to be the most effective for student management include bus monitors and surveillance cameras, followed by referrals, pulling over, assigned seating, and promotion of driver-student relationships. Conversely, the strategies perceived to be the least effective were seat belts and entertainment (i.e., showing movies or playing music on the radio). However, perceptions often depended on the type of district; for instance, those with more special-education students tended to perceive strategies to be less effective, whereas respondents from smaller districts perceived several strategies to be more effective than their urban counterparts (e.g., encouraging drivers to get to know their students).

5. Variety of approaches used to determine whether strategies are working.

Almost all districts get feedback from their drivers, and at least 65% get feedback from students or parents. Although 70% track referrals before and after strategies are implemented, fewer than half have strategies formally evaluated or observe buses after new strategies are applied. Many also described data-driven approaches to student management, including using referral data to inform responses to misconduct or driver training programs, isolate issues to specific schools or buses, or assess trends in referrals and misconduct over time.

6. Numerous student management challenges described.

The most common challenges were parents not believing (or cooperating with) the transportation department when told that their child had misbehaved, a lack of support from school administrators, a lack of respect for drivers, and a lack of consistency or follow-through in how schools handle problems. Respondents also described a need for bus monitors and cameras, insufficient training for drivers, and problems recruiting and retaining drivers.

Taken together, the project advanced our understanding of the nature and extent of misconduct on buses and the approaches used for student management. Although scientific evaluations of these strategies are needed to build confidence in their effectiveness, the project has identified a short list of promising approaches and the conditions under which they are perceived to be effective. A recently published article in the Journal of School Violence has more information about this study, and can be found here. The final report for this project will also be published online by the National Institute of Justice in 2019.