HomeSpecial NeedsPsychologist Shares How to Navigate Problematic Sexual Behaviors on School Bus

Psychologist Shares How to Navigate Problematic Sexual Behaviors on School Bus

FRISCO, Texas — “Who’s ready to talk about sex?” Shelly Rutledge asked to kick off her keynote presentation at the TSD Conference.

Rutledge, the lead school psychologist for sexual incident assessment and management for Salem-Keizer Public Schools in Oregon, noted that while sex can be an uncomfortable topic, especially in an educational environment, all people are sexual beings, regardless of age, physical or mental disability. She began her presentation on Saturday by talking about the challenges of student disabilities who have heightened sexual behavior and can exhibit those behaviors inappropriate settings. Rutledge also discussed the role sexual trauma plays, and in conclusion what the educator’s role is when trying to facilitate safe experiences for kids on school buses.

Rutledge explained that children’s brains are different than teenagers and different than adults. And the proper language must be used when describing the sexual activity, as proper sex education safeguards against sexual abuse. For instance, if an adult were to act in inappropriate ways, they could labeled a predator, molester, etc.

However, she advised using the correct language for kids, especially as they are not fully developed. That language consists of phrases such as problematic sexual behavior, sexually problematic behaviors and concerning sexual behaviors.

Most sexual behaviors are normal in an appropriate setting, but this is never on the school bus, she said. Examples range from sexual talk, gestures or jokes to showing adult content on a personal device as well as grooming to manipulate another student. More concerning acts consist of children exposing their genitals, trying to kiss or show affection such as (hugging, petting, touching) as well as coercing another peer to undress or expose body parts. The most concerning acts include touching the genitals of others, masturbating and sexual acts.

She explained why transportation may be a high-risk situation for students who exhibit problematic sexual behavior. The factors include the lack of support for the drivers and students on a vehicle, mixed ages or abilities, limited ability to provide interventions/support, varying modes of transportation as well as limited supervision and highly stimulating settings. Plus, bus drivers have challenges. She noted bus drivers have varying skills and backgrounds — retired police officers, retired educators, those who have been a driver their whole life — which includes a vast degree of skill level and a limited ability to train, especially if there’s high turnover.

She cited various modes of transportation, complex routes and limited supports as more challenging factors.

When it comes to students with special needs, she noted they could have a hard time determining the appropriate time to act. Other questions to ask when a behavior takes place, she said, is was the sexual act normal for their age? And did they consent to it?

She explained that sexual behavior does not always serve as a sexual function. Plus, how a child views and understands sex is based on their environment. This ranges anywhere from being a witness or victim of sexual abuse to lack of sex education or even access to pornography — which she cautioned that, while normal for teenagers it may be skewing perceptions of sex and relationships.

She advised officials to look at the motivation of the act. Does it equate to sexual gratification of stimulation? Instead, she said the behaviors may be related to curiosity, anxiety, imitation, attention seeking, self-calming or for other reasons.


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When trying to determine if the sexual behavior is healthy, she said children should never engage in adult-like sexual behavior. Instead, it should be playful, not aggressive or coercive. Other factors to consider are if it’s between similar participants, — size, age, development stage, social hierarchy — voluntary, between friends, if the behaviors are limited to very a narrow and basic understanding, as well as light-hearted and spontaneous.

PSB & Students with Disabilities on the School Bus

Rutledge explained that kids with intellectual disabilities have an impairment, which comes with challenges. She said they could have difficulties with social skills, personal boundaries, impulse control, a limited understanding, difficulties with motor control, communication and simply that kids with disabilities are not being treated to the same sexual education.

The risk is that sexual behavior problems could occur due to developmental challenges and they’re at a risk of heightened sexual abuse, she explained.

  • When looking at managing the behavior on a school bus she advised:
  • Using adult escorts
  • Implementing support plans — does one even exist for this child or at your district?
  • Seating charts – especially those that are developed by the special education case managers who know the kids the best.
  • Peer dynamics — are younger kids seated with older kids? She advises only sitting younger students with older students if they are siblings
  • Seatbelts, when appropriate
  • Move students toward the front of the bus, if the bus if empty
  • Controlling noise
  • Updated bus support plans

A main factor, however, is bus drivers knowing what they’re looking for. Bus support plans, she said, should point out what the concerning behavior is, and the drivers need to know what they’re looking for and who to report it to. Communication is huge, Rutledge added.

For example, if a child consistently masturbates on the bus, she advised one solution could be dressing the child in multiple layers and/or in clothes that are hard to remove. However, she advised attendees that the challenges expand beyond transportation and that they should engage in all stakeholders.

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