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Anxiety of New School Year Exacerbated by Security Concerns

Many students nationwide are returning to school this month for the first time since the Uvalde, Texas tragedy in late May. Most likely, the school bus driver will be the first staff person to greet them. That may make for some anxious students as they board the bus, anxious parents who see them off, and even anxious bus drivers who receive them. Scott A. Woitaszewski, Ph.D., director of the school psychology program in the department of counseling and school psychology at the University of Wisconsin in River Falls, noted sometimes school bus drivers can be neglect-ed in school safety and crisis response efforts.“But often they can be the frontline eyes and ears of a school,” he added.

One starting point in any school district is to emphasize to school bus drivers how important they are in the role of a student’s well-being and include them in those efforts. Woitaszewski referenced the “20/20” rule: 20 percent of young people have a significant psychological, academic or behavioral challenge, and of those only 20 percent will ever get any help. For the most part, that assistance will come through the school system.

“For bus drivers, 20 percent of the kids getting on their bus could be struggling with something,” Woitaszewski observed. “That bus driver could be the link to some other support. Making sure they have a way to connect to a referral process, a manager, a mental health professional can really make a big difference to the child. They may be the one who gets that child help.

”Woitaszewski said every school should have a pro-cess in place to help school bus drivers navigate potential student questions or possible changes in a student’s emotions, appearance or behavior. “If you see something, say something,” is always good guidance, Woitaszewski noted.“It would be reassuring for any staff member that they know what they can do to help and they don’t have to do it all themselves,” he shared.

The response could involve a referral form that includes a checklist of factors of concern, such as significant changes in behavior or emotion or “things that haven’t subsided yet,” the psychologist commented.“It’s common for kids to have ups and downs emotionally, but if a child looks or is acting different for several weeks, you certainly want to make somebody else who can act on that is aware of it,” Woitaszewski said.

He added that in the scenario where an anxious student boards a bus and talks to the driver about safety asking if something bad is going to happen at their school or will a shooter come to the school there are techniques that can be deployed.

“I encourage adults to empathize a little bit, first of all, [that] it’s OK to have a variety of feelings. We don’t want to tell a child, ‘Don’t be anxious.’ It’s even OK for adults to say, ‘Sometimes I get a little a little bit worried, too,’” he said. “Modeling calm can be reassuring. Don’t provide unnecessary details. Let their questions be your guide. Sometimes it requires providing some basic facts. Some-times it’s dispelling rumors that’s necessary.

”A tough question such as, “Is someone going to come into our school and shoot us up?’ would be enough to put any adult on their heels, Woitaszewski pointed out.“You don’t want to say no, it’s never going to happen. You can’t promise that. You don’t want to say yes,” he added.

One technique is to talk about what the school is doing to keep everyone safe. Woitaszewski advised discussing with the student, the adult presence at the school or other safety features that may be in place, he added.

The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) advises that in speaking with students about school violence, reassure them that the school is doing everything possible to keep them safe and while the possibility of violence exists, the probability that it will affect a particular school is low.

For elementary school students, questions should be answered simply without extensive details and balanced with reassurances that they and their loved ones are safe and protected. For upper elementary and early middle school, provide factual information to correct misinformation and help them separate reality from fantasy.For upper middle and high school students, listen to their ideas and observations about current safety efforts. Emphasize why and how to follow school safety guidelines, report concerns and get help.

School bus drivers also could be struggling with anxiety over school violence. NASP has a school safety and crisis response curriculum, called PREPaRE, focused on care for the caregiver, Woitaszewski noted. While it’s targeted for educators and mental health professionals, “it certainly involves bus drivers as well,” he added.

“Care for the caregiver means we’re giving ourselves permission to take care of ourselves. And we’re talking to others about that we have a culture of care,” Woitaszewski continued. “If a bus driver needs to take a day off or needs other support, are there employee assistance programs in the district? Is counseling needed? Is there a culture where a bus driver could talk to an administrator or a support person and say, ‘I’m struggling’ and they don’t have to feel like they’d be judged or lose their job? What if one bus driver observes another bus driver who’s struggling with something? Is there a referral process, a culture where it’s acceptable to talk to others about it?”

School bus drivers may feel as mental health professionals do in that they are the one who are supposed to be helping other people, yet cannot find time to take care of themselves, Woitaszewski said.

“If we’re not in a good space ourselves, we can actually do harm,” he shared. “In the worst case, we may not notice what a child might be saying or thinking because we’re not taking care of ourselves. There may be challenges with ‘care for the caregiver’ cultures in schools, but it’s something that should be addressed.”

Marisa Weisinger, the executive director of the Texas Association for Pupil Transportation, commented that any time a traumatic event happens at a school, the school bus drivers are also encouraged to avail themselves of counseling offered to those affected by the incident.

“[School districts] don’t expect drivers to go to the counselor. They put the counselors right there in the department and set up an office for them where they can privately talk,” she relayed. “That’s something that is immediately handled by the school district and provided at the department at the school for everybody affected.”

Matthew Thomas, director of transportation for Garden Grove Unified School District in Southern California, noted that those working for the district are requesting active shooter training, which it plans to institute soon.

“We’re a very large department with seven entrances or exits. I believe in training and just being vigilant. Where schools have active shooter training, it’s probably smart to do it also in the transportation department,” added Thomas, who also serves as the president of the California Association of School Transportation Officials (CASTO).

It’s a concern that is being added to dealing with the ramifications of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as a shortage of drivers, Thomas pointed out, adding that the school bus drivers also serve as civil defense workers in neighborhood evacuations due to natural disasters.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the August 2022 issue of School Transportation News.


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