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Facing Bullies Head On

The two-year, COVID-19 pandemic has resulted in patchy school attendance whether at the school building or at home while learning virtually. However, old-fashioned schoolyard bullying has remained a consistent trend among student populations no matter where they are sitting for class.

Minority student populations, such as those with special needs or LGBTQ identities, are among the highest risk groups for bullying targets. By law, these students are federally protected from discrimination, but that doesn’t deter bullies who violate the rights and well-being of others.

“It’s sad but bullying happens. There are very few safe havens unless a teacher, a school or a district is doing something about it,” said Dr. Ben Springer, Ph.D., a nationally certified school psychologist with the Wasatch County School District in Heber City, Utah, and the creator of the training program ASPEN on the Bus: Managing Aggressive Behaviors. “Without safe havens, supervision and structure, students are left to fend for themselves, and I think we all know how that ends.”

Bullying victims are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and other health issues. Many victims drop out of school. Suicides and recent school shootings are known to have origins in bullying incidents, which is heightening public health concerns.

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Bullying means intentionally or knowingly committing an act that endangers the physical health or safety of another person. Such aggressive behavior is intended to cause harm or establish an imbalanced relationship often with repeated harmful incidents over time. Bullying comes in many forms: verbal, written, electronically posted, mean teasing, hazing, and physical harm.

Springer, who is the director of Wasatch County School District’s Family Education Center and a former director of special education, explained bullying is actually a specific type of what is known as “coercive behavior.” In other words, children (and adults) who engage in bullying behavior are typically attempting to coerce others. Kids with limited communication skills or isolated friendship circles tend to be more vulnerable to coercive people.

“The latest trend is that bullying is not only pervasive, but a super common form of behavior exhibited by both students and adults,” said Springer, who was originally scheduled to keynote the TSD Conference this month and provide an overview of his ASPEN training, before the event was postponed until November. “Schoolyard bullying still exists in the form of what we call relational aggression and exclusion. These forms of bullying happen on school campuses and buses. The other types of bullying occur on social media and text threads both on and off campus.”

At the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, about 22 percent of students aged 12 to 18 years reported being bullied at school, according to the Indicators of School Crime and Safety report released by the Institute of Education Sciences for the U.S. Department of Education. High schoolers were more prone to bullying via electronic channels, and students with special needs or LGBTQ identities were among the highest online bullying targets. Eight percent of survey respondents indicated they were bullied on a bus.

Multiple Ways to Confront Bullying
Proactive school districts can prevent student victimization, community pain, lawsuits and bad press. Student transporters play a key role in spotting, reporting and proactively addressing bullying. Zero-tolerance bullying policies, mandatory anti-bullying training and rising awareness also can help members of the school community work toward dignity and respect for all.

Through onboard Wi-Fi connections and video cameras, school bus operators can catch culprits in the act and address the issue using audio and video recordings as evidence. Districts can also can notify law enforcement of incidents on the bus in real-time and address them before further endangering drivers and passengers. Without an electronic backup to catch and report bullying, incidents can escalate to lifelong mental scars and lawsuits against school districts.

For Gaston County Schools in North Carolina, the school bus camera didn’t catch a bullying incident involving a fifth-grade girl with special needs, according to the school district. However, student bystanders recorded the disturbing incident on their cellphones and shared it via social media. The videos showed a bully pulling the fifth grader’s hair and pounding her head into the bus seat. The victim’s parents are using the video as evidence in a lawsuit calling for changes in the district’s bullying policy. The parents want more accountability in reporting incidents to families and harsher discipline against bullies. While the Gaston County Schools reportedly followed disciplinary procedures, the case remains in juvenile court.

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Building Better Policies and Training
Incidents will not spiral to a crisis level if bullying policies are better understood and clearly communicated. Regular training can help drivers, supervisors and school administrators understand their roles in enforcing policies on the bus to preserve student and driver safety.

For example, Utah’s Wasatch County School District has a zero-tolerance pol-icy for bullying, cyberbullying, harassment, and hazing of students and employees. The district will investigate, and if a violation is found, will address through discipline, or prosecute through federal and state laws. Additionally, the State of Utah requires school staff to take anti-bullying training every three years.

Wasatch County School District’s school transportation department goes above the state’s requirement by training its bus drivers every other year, either in person or online. It uses Springer’s ASPEN on the Bus training course to help student transporters crack the codes of behavior by looking in the mirror. The ASPEN program features modules for breaking the cycle of bullying and bringing together teachers and school transporters to build safe havens.

A safe haven is considered to be any place where a caring adult can define rules and expectations, encourage positive interactions, and create a space for conflict resolution. Without these boundaries, students and drivers are left out on a ledge, and it’s not safe for anybody.

“We hit [training] hard,” said Kris Allen, transportation director for Wasatch County School District, which has 49 buses to transport 3,500 students a day.

The district uses additional resources every three years to meet the state training requirement.

If a bullying incident occurs on the bus, the transportation department follows a process to immediately address the issue. First, the driver addresses anything with an onboard consequence, then a discipline slip is given to the violator. A copy of the slip is turned into the transportation office where an administrator works to resolve the problem with parents, teachers and principals. Often video camera data is used to fully understand what took place on the bus, Allen explained.

Guiding Through Empathy
In general, children need guidance in developing their empathy skills. As they grow, they tend to be egocentric and most interested in their own needs. When kids fall into a selfish mindset, they will bully and coerce to get their way. The best way to put a stop or even curb these events is to provide enough supervision and structure for kids.

Adults also can encourage empathy from children by demonstrating appropriate behavior, understanding how children think and determining how to regulate emotions. It’s also helpful to encourage children to talk more about their feelings.

More about the ASPEN on the Bus program and compassionate training can be found at

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

Related: TSD Conference Opening Keynote Prompts Attendees to Cheer for Themselves, Students
Related: (STN Podcast E36) TSD Virtual Live Podcast #1: Empathy & Real-World Preparation
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