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COVID-19 Era Introduces New Student Behavior Concerns

Might mask-shaming and public ridicule over temperatures taken at the school bus stop result in a new era of bullying?

Bullying has been a part of childhood (and adulthood) since the beginning of recorded human history and, likely, even before humans began documenting it. Every war since the beginning of time is a testament to that. Unfortunately, bullying has been and remains human nature, whether it is based on politics or the result of childish dust-up on the local playground.

“At its core, bullying is a harmful behavioral expression of potentially multiple emotional drives: fear, insecurity, anger, and even sadness—emotions that the bully has not developed helpful behaviors to express,” said Adam Saénz, Ph.D., a school psychologist and CEO of the Applied EQ Group.

According to the report “Indicators of School Crime and Safety” prepared for the U.S. Department of Education, 20 percent of students ages 12 through 18 reported being bullied at school in 2017. But from 2005 through 2017, the percentage of students who reported being bullied at school at least once a week decreased from 29 to 20 percent. Approximately eight percent of those surveyed reported the bullying behavior they experienced occurred on a school bus.

While bullying may appear to be on the decline, it continues to cause anxiety for parents, school officials, and student transporters across the country. The Department of Education study, which was most recently updated in July, asks students ages 12 through 18 if they had been subjected to bullying related to a specific characteristic or topic. In 2017, about 42 percent of students who reported being bullied at school indicated that the bullying was related to at least one of the following characteristics: physical appearance (30 percent), race (10 percent), gender (8 percent), disability (7 percent), ethnicity (7 percent), religion (5 percent), and sexual orientation (4 percent).

Now, it appears a new bullying angle could be on the horizon: the new novel coronavirus. With its advent this year, bullies may have a new topic to add to their repertoire.

As of this writing, many schools remained in a virtual learning model due to the continued spread of the virus and on-going quarantines in many communities. However, the transportation of students with disabilities continues, and some school districts have fully opened. Still, there are relatively few buses on the road than there would be normally. It has yet to be determined whether COVID-19 and the health safety behaviors required to go out in public (mask-wearing, hand washing, temperature taking, etc.) will become part of the bullying landscape. But it seems likely given their current prevalence.

“The broad aim of bullying is to exert power over or to inflict pain upon another individual,” shared Alexandra Robinson, an industry consultant who also served as president of the National Association for Pupil Transportation from 2010 through 2012. “One of the best ways to prevent bullying is through communication. It is critical for the adult who is pulled into a bullying situation to be an empathetic listener. That is the first step in building a trusting, respectful environment where bullying is less likely to happen.”

Imagine the following scenario playing out at a school bus stop anywhere in the country. A school bus pulls up. As the children step up to board the bus, the school bus driver aims a digital thermometer at each child’s forehead to take their temperatures. Fourth-grader “Suzy” registers 99.9 degrees Fahrenheit—a low-grade fever. The bus driver quietly and kindly tells Suzy she can’t ride the bus today and must return home. The other children don’t hear what the bus driver said, but it has not escaped their notice that Suzy was tested, turned away, and now is trudging back home. When she returns to the bus stop a few days later after testing negative for the virus, another student at the stop taunts her shouting, “Corona-head!”

Given the likelihood that this or similar scenarios may very well become reality across the country in the coming weeks and months—if they haven’t occurred already—at least in places where districts take temperatures prior to students getting to school, Robinson said it is prudent for student transporters to review best-practice bully management tips and techniques as well as helpful resource materials for school bus drivers and education support professionals.

Resources for Individuals

Whether addressing professional roles or personal lives, it’s critical for all people to manage their responses to stressful situations such as the COVID-19 crisis.

“We’re in uncharted waters,” observed Saénz. “The definition of anxiety is being in a new situation and not being sure you can cope with it. This triggers a fight or flight response, which we can use to channel our behavior in helpful ways or non-helpful ways.

He explained that negative actions such as attacking, blaming or showing anger trigger the production of the stress hormone cortisol, which can result in weight gain and other negative health consequences, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.


Related: Anti-Bullying Program Creates Positive Ripples Across North America
Related: How School Bus Drivers Can Protect Disabled Children from Bullying
Related: Lessons in Managing Student Behavior on the School Bus
Related: Recognizing that Behavior is a Powerful Tool in Student Transportation
Related: Is Improved Student Behavior Just a Click Away?


Dr. Saénz suggested engaging in positive actions to help manage stress, such as exercising, yoga, relaxation, deep breathing, and eating healthy.

“These activities will help put us in a frame of mind where we can act in ways that are constructive and help solve the situation,” he added. “We want to get to a place that is healthful so we can help ourselves and others to recover, heal and restore.”

A wide variety of self-help websites, books, articles, tutorials and webinars found online provide helpful strategies to manage the stress and uncertainty of COVID-19 and to gauge one’s mental health.

“Just getting back to school will be a relief, but it won’t fix everything,” said Saénz, who was scheduled to speak to TSD Conference attendees in March before COVID-19 took a stranglehold. “We all need to be honest with our- selves and each other; and perhaps, more importantly, we need to be kind and loving to ourselves and each other.”

Resources for Organizations

A number of federal, state and national organization resources also exist to help education support professionals such as school bus drivers prevent bullying in their communities. Training materials developed by the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Healthy Students provide guidance on how bus drivers can effectively respond to and prevent bullying. Published in June 2011, the materials help bus drivers create a safe and respectful environment on their school buses. The state-of-the-art information, which includes a palm card for drivers as an easy reference tool for actions to take, provides ways to intervene in bullying behavior, de-escalate threatening behavior, and build a supportive bus climate to prevent bullying. Access to the materials is free of charge at safesupportivelearning.ed.gov.

The National Education Association sponsors Bully Free: It Starts With Me. Program highlights include toolkits, valuable research to inspire ideas for making schools a bully-free zone, action plans to create a more respectful environment, and related events and activities. All are designed specifically for teachers and education support professionals.

The Pupil Transportation Safety Institute offers a Bullying on the Bus training curriculum and teaching materials to school districts so local bus-driver instructors can train drivers on how to respond to school bus bullying situations.

“Kids sometimes get on the bus with a pre-existing conflict with another student,” said Kathleen Furneaux, executive director of the Pupil Transportation Safety Institute and creator of the Bullying on the Bus curriculum. “That’s why we stress the importance of setting clear expectations for behavior on the bus and the importance of creating an environment that’s filled with respect.”

Meanwhile, The Kansas State Department of Education addresses bullying in its reopening guidance for all school districts in the state. “Navigating Change: Kansas Guide to Learning and School Safety Operations,” states that bus seats should be filled from the back to the front to avoid students walking past each other. However, it also states that school district officials still need to be cautious about having students of various ages sit together due to bullying and other issues.

Iowa has also been proactive in addressing bullying. The Iowa Department of Education sponsors an Anti-Bullying/Anti-Harassment program that provides a legal definition of bullying and identifies different types of bullying. The guidance states that the presence of a power imbalance between involved parties is required for an action to truly be considered bullying and be eligible for prosecution. The state requires all public and accredited non-public schools have an anti-bullying and anti-harassment policy in place.

Further, the Iowa law defines bullying and harassment as any electronic, written, verbal, or physical act or conduct towards a student, which is based on any actual or perceived trait or characteristic of the student and which creates an objectively hostile school environment that meets one or more of the following conditions:

  • Places the student in reasonable fear of harm to the student’s person or property.
  • Has a substantially detrimental effect on the student’s physical or mental health.
  • Has the effect of substantially interfering with a student’s academic performance.
  • Has the effect of substantially interfering with the student’s ability to participate in or benefit from the services, activities, or privileges provided by a school.

“Having a law for schools that specifically defines bullying and outlines its detrimental effects to individuals and society has helped school officials strengthen their anti-bullying and anti-harassment efforts in schools across the state,” said Bradley C Niebling, Ph.D., chief bureau of learner strategies and supports for Iowa Department of Education.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the October 2020 issue of School Transportation News. 

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