Earlier this year, a Florida mother received a video of her 9-year-old daughter being beaten on the school bus by a group of older students. In September 2022, Miami police arrested three 17-year-old boys who robbed a deaf student at knife point at a school bus stop. Meanwhile, a lawsuit was settled in October 2022 regarding a 2018 incident, during which a South Carolina girl who is nonverbal and on the autism spectrum was severely beaten during the school bus ride by another student with an emotional disturbance who
should have been accompanied by a monitor.
Amid the high rates of assaults and bullying, verbal or physical, educators who are trying to create a safe environment are growing disheartened, especially onboard the school bus where there’s usually a higher ratio of students to adults than in a classroom. But the key to combating bullying lies in understanding not only the cause and effects but student transportation’s role in prevention.
Dr. Ben Springer, a keynote speaker at the 2023 TSD Conference this month, has unique experience to share. He is not only a former director of special education for Wasatch County School District in Utah but also a school bus attendant for students with special needs. His approach utilizes the pressing questions about bullying to help frame why these abusive behaviors occur in school environments—and what can be done about them. “Bullying has been and will always be, unless we do something about it, a tool to gain and/or preserve status, voice and choice,” he said.
Springer explained that children use bullying to maintain status or to establish dominance over another person. He maintains that if educators can teach children academic knowledge, they can also teach conflict resolution.
During a recent webinar hosted by the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice, experts discussed the long-term and often severe effects bullying can have on student mental health and academic performance.
Chad Rose, an associate professor at the University of Missouri and director of the Missouri Bullying Prevention Lab, said half of all students experience bullying in a school setting, with one in five students experiencing some kind of victimization, defined in psychologist circles as subjecting a person to cruel and unfair treatment, typically through physical or emotional abuse.
Rose told School Transportation News that he presented on the importance of social and communication skill development, especially among students with special needs or disabilities who are twice as likely to experience victimization. He explained that this starts with a shift in school climate and culture.
It is vital that school systems and communities at-large recognize school buses are extensions of the classroom, he continued, and student transportation professionals need to have the same resources and support that classroom teachers have.
“The bus drivers need to be using the same language and engaging in the same messaging that is being used in schools. The same expectations should be included in the transportation of students to and from school. Doing so would require the representation of school bus drivers in the meetings and trainings,” said Rose. “The school bus should be viewed as an extension of the educational environment. It’s in these spaces where kids learn and engage in social skills that are so incredibly important in bullying prevention.”
While it is not only crucial for students to know what to do, what to say, and who to tell when they have experienced bullying, Rose stated that school bus drivers need to be aware of the district’s response and investigation policies, so they correctly follow protocol. “Bus drivers need to be informed of any intervention or support that has been given to students [that ride their bus] who have been bullied in the school,” he continued.
Rose specified behavior-specific praise as an under-utilized tool for bullying prevention, adding that the process for encouraging students to engage in positive behaviors is to tell students what the expectations are, give them the opportunity to engage in those expectations, and then provide them with behavior specific praise. He advised flipping the way educators provide feedback, from using corrective or punitive statements such as “Don’t do that,” and instead saying, “I really like the way you’re doing that.” Positive behavior supports are not only developmentally beneficial but reinforce positive behavior, he explained.
He added, “That trip on the bus is an extension of the school day. If the kids view it that way, then they will continue to engage in the behavior that would be expected in the school. And it all comes down to what those are expectations are and how they’ve been established early on.”
Rose advised that school bus drivers who establish connections and relationships with students are in the position to detect early signs of bullying. “Bus drivers have a unique opportunity to develop a rapport with their students because on this bus they’re in a different environment, where you’re taking them to and from their home, where they are most comfortable.”
When it comes to interacting with parents, Rose encouraged transportation professionals to share positive behavior moments from the school bus ride. When an incident occurs where the student has broken a rule or violated a policy, a foundation already exists to address and solve the issue.
While technology can most certainly assist transportation departments in tracking bullying incidents, procedures are needed to ensures video footage, for example, is reviewed in a timely manner by the appropriate school officials.
Eric Watkins, transportation and school safety director at Stewart County Schools in Tennessee, said his district reviews footage from the onboard bus cameras once a month, if any issues have been reported or not.
“If a bus driver is going to do a student write-up, and it is something that we think [warrants] it, we review the incident and make a clip for the school administrators, or the parents to watch (if they request it),” said Watkins. “The video footage stays with the transportation office and needs a court subpoena to leave our facility.”
Stewart County began implementing the procedures following the murder of school bus driver Joyce Gregory by one of her students in March 2004.
With 95 percent of teens being on social media platforms, explained Meghan Whittaker, special assistant to the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Special Education and Rehabilitative Services, it is also imperative to ensure that students are receiving education on how to appropriately use social media. Often, incidents of bullying are captured and released on social media before the district or transportation department is even aware the incident took place.
Rose emphasized that is it crucial that districts should not only be teaching academic curricula but also the concepts of safety, choice and permanence in their online activities, which would translate to students having better decisions making skills.
“It’s [about] consistency,” Rose concluded. “If we really want to address bullying in our schools, our buses, our playgrounds, our athletics, in our clubs, part of the solution is making sure everyone is trained and on the same page. The other part is making sure we are consistent in the way we are communicating with youth.”
Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the November 2023 issue of School Transportation News.
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