The coronavirus pandemic has put additional stress on not only students and parents but also created political tension while limiting police staff in major cities nationwide. News headlines indicated increased student behavior challenges at school are a result.
For instance, one case that was reported last October occurred outside of Rochester, New York. ABC 13 WHAM reported that several Greece Athena Middle School students were involved in a fight on a school bus. The behavior reportedly required “immediate intervention.” The article reported on a statement the district issued regarding the incident.
“Typically, a bus with a high number of students on board would have a driver and a bus attendant to help manage student behavior. Due to staffing shortages, no attendant was present,” according to the district statement. “The district has taken several proactive steps to try to mitigate these types of situations, such as adding video surveillance on all buses. Going forward we will work to ensure that there is always an attendant present on this bus and other highly populated buses.”
However, poor behavior is not only occurring with students. Around the same time 100 miles to the east, the Central Square CSD superintendent reportedly asked parents to stop yelling obscenities at school bus drivers over COVID-19 rules. The behavior doesn’t stop there. In New Orleans, cell phone video captured parents illegally boarding a school bus, dragging the school bus driver out of her seat and down the stepwell, and beating and kicking her as a group of students waited to board. The parents were reportedly angry about a bullying incident that occurred on the school bus.
At Minneapolis Public Schools, a school bus driver was reportedly threatened with a gun by an upset parent because the school bus was late. Then months later, a district school bus driver and student were shot in separate incidents that occurred within hours of each other.
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These are only some examples of the recent behavioral issues reported on by local media. Michael Dorn, the executive director of Safe Havens International, a non-profit safety organization, explained that most of his clients have reported an increase in behavior incidents at school, whether it be related to gang activity, drugs or vaping, etc.
“A lot of people talk about the pandemic,” he said, “I think there’s definitely some correlation there. We’ve got so many very troubled kids, just like we have a lot of troubled adults. When you take especially high-risk kids, who for many of them school is the most structured environment, and separate them from that, that can create lots of different problems. When you’ve got mom or dad or both parents or caregivers are out of work or laid off, combined with, in many situations, a lot of together time can [also] create additional conflicts.”
Plus, he explained that many states are opting to reduce the number of law enforcement support officers at school sites. He said some school officials he’s spoken with have even been prohibited from calling 911 unless an immediate threat is present.
He explained that due to vaccine mandates, police forces are also experiencing high rates of turnover. Dorn said the combination of less experienced officers or not enough officers along with pressures coming from commanding officers to back off from certain situations are all contributing factors.
Then, he noted turnover in transportation departments, and many are short-staffed. Dorn explained that drivers with 10-plus years of experience are more likely than new drivers to be better equipped to handle behavior challenges.
“[T]here’s not going to be one thing that’s going to make this go away,” he said. “You do need to look at what your local situation is.”
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For Jeffery Thompson, the director of transportation for St. Mary’s County Public Schools in Maryland, the political landscape is resulting in increased student and parent behavior issues. It’s his opinion that anger aimed at school district officials has arisen from across the political spectrum.
“We have a lot of students and guardians and parents that are really engaged in questioning and challenging state laws and local policies, and really questioning those authority figures that are tasked with enforcing those laws and policies,” he added. “They didn’t create them, but they’re tasked with enforcing it, and they, unfortunately, get caught in the crosshairs of having to [work it out] while trying to make a safe and good instructional school day.”
He noted that community members are more vocal in trying to change some of the best practices at the district, but it’s not just a school district or a transportation challenge. He cited various videos of passengers acting out on airplanes, and flight attendants being caught in the crossfire.
Enforcing Behavior Policies
Dorn noted that student transporters could focus on teaching drivers how to handle the types of situations that can lead to conflict. He noted school bus video cameras can be helpful, as they can pick up behaviors while also flagging videos that are out of the normal so that transportation officials can go back and watch them.
He recommends school districts utilize Homeland Security resources or invite local law enforcement officers to train staff and school bus drivers on what to do if someone suspicious is approaching the bus, as well as things to look for before pulling up to the school bus stop and opening the entry door.
Dorn advised school districts to implement training in threat assessment management and self-harm prevention. Threat assessment management, he said, is unlike physical security measures, as it addresses how to take corrective action before a student brings a weapon to school, for example. Meanwhile, self-harm prevention teaches staff and students of age-appropriate levels the indicators that somebody intends to harm themselves, he explained.
“And now if somebody comes to you and says, ‘Hey, my friend is giving away all her valuables,’ now you have a screening process and training that helps you evaluate is this person at increased risk for self-harm and if so, here’s what to do about,” Dorn added.
He advised investing in training to make school buses safer, such as behavioral training for school bus drivers. Dorn also suggested frequent management checkups on training effectiveness. This means not merely ensuring transportation staff is receiving the necessary information but also reviewing bus video footage from select routes to see how or if the training is being implemented.
He also suggested modeling bus driver training on that being given to teachers and building staff. If teachers are being trained in social emotional learning, for example, drivers should be trained, too. He advised transportation directors to be advocates for their staff.
Meanwhile, Thompson said St. Mary’s County Public Schools has a code of conduct that clearly states student expectations for both the children and their parents to understand. He said school bus drivers also have clear procedures and best practices on how to communicate and be supportive with upset parents and students.
He added that school building administrators handle all the disciplinary issues through bus referrals. Thompson said it’s best when school administrators and bus drivers have mutual respect for each other’s roles. Additionally, he said peer interaction is also encouraged. If a driver is having a challenge with a certain student or situation, maybe another driver has handled something similar before and they can share advice.
“Making sure the school administrators are providing the feedback to the bus staff is crucial because that’s what the bus drivers want, knowing that their situations are being addressed,” Thompson said, adding that it may not always be addressed the way the driver would want.
He noted that especially in terms of student fights, it helps to have a process for expectations and how they are handled on the bus. He noted that law enforcement should be called immediately during any dangerous situation. He added that only in rare instances should school bus drivers intervene. Most of the time, he said it’s left up to law enforcement or school administrators.
Additionally, per Maryland’s state law and local policy, drivers are trained in keeping all unauthorized passengers off the bus.
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Jenny Robinson, the general manager at Bethlehem Area School District in Pennsylvania, however, noted that her school district hasn’t seen an increase in behavior challenges. But when there are issues, she said she understands why.
“I think aggravation comes from uncertainty, and the uncertainty in our business is when exactly the bus will arrive,” Robinson said, adding that sometimes a bus could come at 3:15 p.m., and the next day it’s 10 minutes earlier or later.
She said her drivers are also trained on basic customer service, which she noted might not always be the training that stands out when thinking about transportation. “But it absolutely does [correlate],” Robinson said. “Because [parents and students] are our customers. So just handling a complaint in a calm and professional way and trying not to escalate a situation by being argumentative, or combative. They do get training and they are supposed have our generic business cards. ‘Sir, I’m sorry you feel this way, but could you please contact my supervisor at this number?’ That kind of thing. And they do a great job of maintaining contact with our dispatch department so that if something comes up and the situation escalates that we’re aware of it right away.”
She said having good communication between dispatchers and school bus drivers is also important.
“Our drivers in our limited situations have handled it really well,” Robinson said, adding that school administrators have been a great help in assisting situations and serving as moderators as they know the families and students better.