HomeSpecial ReportsTimes Are Changing … What Is Your Response to School Bus Violence?

Times Are Changing … What Is Your Response to School Bus Violence?

A simple Google search for “school bus” fills one’s feed with news articles and videos that depict violence. Whether these instances are students or parents attacking the driver, or the driver attacking a student, the increase in violence in and around the school bus cannot be ignored. Transportation directors STN spoke with for the article attribute the increase to shifts noticed after students returned to school following the COVID-19 pandemic.

What makes matters worse is nearly every student has a cell phone and the ability to instantly hit record or contact their parents or guardians if anything goes wrong on the bus, sometimes even before the school bus driver has time to notify dispatch. How is a transportation director to respond in this day and age?

Escambia County Public Schools in Florida is one of the districts mentioned in local news articles about a middle school student assaulting a school bus driver in February. Darlene Hart, the director of transportation, explained that the 23-year veteran driver transporting the students that day is not that route’s regular driver. She reiterated that it wasn’t a “build-up” situation or a case of the bus driver and student not getting along. The offending student had been placed at an alternative school and was able to return to the public school due to good behavior. When the driver pulled up to the student’s stop, Hart explained, she informed the student that transportation policy prohibited drinks on board the bus. The student argued with the driver but reluctantly put the drink in the trash, and they continued on their way to school.

Upon arriving at the school, the driver stood up from her seat, turned to face the students, and greeted each one as they exited the bus. When it got to the student
who had tried to board with the drink, the driver asked her to wait so they could talk. The student then grabbed the driver by the hair and started beating her in the face and around her body, Hart said.

“Luckily we had a school official who was right there,” she added. “And as soon as he saw what was happening, he ran onto the bus and [created a] gap between the student and the driver and was able to shield the driver from any further contact, as far as straight-on contact.”

Hart noted that the driver did nothing to cause this type of violence. “She came in after it happened to do an accident report because we had her go be checked out because she had some pretty deep scratches on her face,” Hart recalled. “But she said, ‘I am so thankful that it was me and not one of our new drivers because [students] can’t scare me. And I’m also glad that it wasn’t an older driver that could have gotten seriously hurt.’ She was just thankful that, if it had to happen, that it happened to her.”

The driver went back to transporting students the next morning. While Hart said violence on the school bus has increased, so has the amount of training provided to bus drivers. One technique employed is what she referred to as conscious discipline. Drivers are encouraged to look within themselves and identify what angers or triggers them. The transportation department also provides de-escalation training to help avoid power struggles on the bus.

“That’s been helpful,” Hart said, adding that four training sessions a year are focused on these topics. “We talk about these things what we can do to protect ourselves, protect
our students. We work on that consciously, all the time, to try to come up with new strategies.”

Mike Jones, executive director of transportation for Fort Bend Independent School District in Texas, said the language has gotten more severe on general education buses and aggressive student behavior has increased on special education routes, especially in younger students. He added that staff is limited in ways to handle those situations.

Jones said he is completing his second year at Fort Bend and the policy was originally, “You never touch a kid.” However, he said, that’s not accurate anymore, and he’s working on changing that driver perspective. Instead, he said, the district is arming the bus drivers with the right information. There are certain circumstances in which, if a driver is trying to protect themself, others or even the student from hurting themselves, they can physically intervene.

“Now, it’s not a license to attack,” he said, “but to restrain or to keep them from hurting themselves or others. It’s just got to be something that you can defend and something that needs to be documented immediately.”

Meanwhile, Lee Livingston, the director of transportation for Prince George’s County Public Schools in Virginia, said parent-on-driver violence is occurring in his district more frequently than any other incident. This school year alone, he said, there have been three occasions when staff have contacted law enforcement because of an aggressive parent. The state of Virginia does have a law against school bus trespassing, but Livingston said it hasn’t been enforced until recently.

“We train our drivers to make sure that, if an adult comes to the bus and actually steps on to the bus, [the drivers] have to tell them to leave even though there’s a sign posted,” he said, adding that the state requires the sign to be posted on the stairwell. “That you tell the individual that they have to leave. At that point in time, if they don’t, then they can actually receive criminal charges.”

He noted that student-on-student bullying and student and parent behavior in general has been a growing problem, which is harder to combat now with social media. “Since we came back from the pandemic it’s been a real challenge,” he said. “I do think it has leveled off over the past two and a half to three years, it’s leveled off compared to what it was, when we first opened back up from being closed from a pandemic. But it is still a major issue. And quite frankly, it’s probably more that contributing to the driver shortage than it is wages and benefits.”

All Types of Video Footage
Florida’s Hart added that another piece of the puzzle is students filming fights and posting them on social media. She said while there is a policy on the bus that prohibits students from taking pictures or videos, and states their personal devices are only to be used for listening to music or quietly talking to their parents if they need to, it’s hard to enforce.

Hart noted that Escambia has cameras in all buses, so if students are doing something they shouldn’t, administrators can see it. She noted that the video is not a matter of public record according to the state statute, so it’s not released to the media. However, the district does blur other students’ faces if parents need to view the behavior of their child.

Jones in Texas said his district is in the middle of a $1.5 million upgrade to redo all the camera systems on their buses so that they have better coverage. He said the cameras provide protection in terms of administration being able to see exactly what happens on the bus and hold the kids accountable. The new camera systems will include at least five cameras inside of the bus to eliminate driver blind spots.

“If something happens on the bus, we will be able to see accurately what happened,” he said. Jones, however, agreed that cell phones are a constant challenge, even in terms of crashes. He explained that in some circumstances parents will know about an incident on the bus before administration does, sometimes before bus drivers even have time to radio dispatch.

“So far, we haven’t found a solution that that speeds up our process,” he said. “The drivers still initiate a call to dispatch to let them know what’s happened. Now one thing that we do, is empower our drivers that if there’s a problem getting through to dispatch and they need to call 911, to go ahead and do that.”

He explained that bus drivers originally felt like they couldn’t call 911, but Jones said in a true emergency, that’s changed. Another new implementation is Transfinder’s Stopfinder solution for communication with parents.

“We’ll be using that to try to get notifications out to parents when there is an incident, even if it’s just a late bus or a breakdown or an accident,” he said, adding that now the entire school doesn’t have to receive the notification, only the parents involved with that certain bus.

Livingston in Virginia said that while onboard cameras don’t necessarily prevent incidents from happening, they are another tool available to drivers for protecting themselves and providing a reference when needed.

However, in terms of students having cell phones on the bus, Livingston noted that the same usage polices apply whether in the classroom or on the bus. Students are not allowed to videotape, text or communicate at all. Personal devices can be used to listen to music but cannot be used as a communication device. He said if there’s an incident and a student sends a message to a parent, they can be written up and disciplined for it.

Protecting Drivers
Hart at Escambia said if two students are fighting on the bus depending on the age and the size of the students involved bus drivers are trained to not get hurt. But if it’s two first graders for example, bus drivers can separate the students after safely pulling the bus over. She reiterated the importance of drivers having a good relationship with the students being transported because often other students on the bus will protect the driver as well.

However, she noted that bus driver safety is not a big concern for her staff. She explained that they are aware that incidents could happen while driving, but they are not constantly thinking about it. Routes with a high rate of violent tendencies have an assistant on board as well.

Livingston noted that drivers are instructed to not get into a situation that’s going to be detrimental to their own well-being. “We have to do everything we can to de-escalate a situation,” he said, adding that the entire staff goes through in-service training each year that touches on de-escalation techniques. “If they can, they will physically intervene to protect other students, but by the same token we can’t have them becoming injured. They have to be there to protect everybody, not just the two that are having the altercation.”

Jones said Fort Bend ISD in Texas restored its monthly safety meetings following COVID-19. Each meeting is dedicated to talking about student management. Transportation also brings in outside perspectives to talk to the staff, so that new faces are delivering the messages.

Editor’s Note: As reprinted in the May 2024 issue of School Transportation News.

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