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Trouble on the bus: what parents need to know (03/20/2013)
By Chris Rogers

Jerry Windley-Daoust had heard a lot from his children about bullying on the bus. For a while he thought, 'That is just a normal part of childhood.' But when he heard about fighting, explicit songs being played, middle school girls holding their phone numbers to the windows for high school boys to see, and kids passing around pornography on smartphones, the school bus began to seem less acceptable for his six-year-old.

"All three of my children were able to describe, in convincing detail, that there had been sexually-explicit images passed around on personal devices, and kids were goading other kids to look at the images," Windley-Daoust said. "That's when I thought, 'Okay, I'm done.'" Windley-Daoust then joined a group of parents who have pulled their kids off the bus and now drive them to school to avoid such behavior problems.

Kids acting up on the school bus is anything but new, and it is certainly not unique to Winona. "Kids will be kids," as a spokesperson for the school district's transportation provider, Minnesota City Bus Services, said. However, as our new generations seem to be exposed to explicit language and behavior at younger and younger ages and as bullying becomes a growing issue for many, it may be worth taking a closer look at what happens on the bus.

In a little over a year and a half of school, there were 757 disciplinary complaints on Winona Area Public School (WAPS) buses. That's an average of just under three complaints per day. Some of those were reported by parents, some by drivers. The complaints vary greatly, from kids being out of their seats to outbursts of violence and profanity. Roughly a third of the complaints filed since August 2011 involved bullying, profanity, violence, or other serious behavioral problems. Most of the complaints resulted in substantive disciplinary action; however, the district did not always follow the recommendations of its transportation safety policy when it responded to student behavior on school buses.

WAPS Superintendent Scott Hannon said that with roughly 3,000 kids from public and private schools riding the bus to and from school everyday, plus ridership for field trips and other events, having only three complaints per day is not bad. In fact, student behavior on buses has improved in recent years, he said.

However, some students and parents say student behavior on buses is a problem, and it is not just the reported cases they are worried about. A seventh-grade student said, "Most of the [bad behavior]—I'd say around 90 percent just goes by without the bus driver noticing." Multiple parents told the Winona Post they had taken their kids off the bus because their kids had been the targets of chronic bullying, had been threatened, or had been repeatedly exposed to inappropriate language and behavior.

Former WAPS bus driver Fred Bursack said that during his tenure as a school bus driver, he had one group of kids who behaved well and another who were "a terror. They just fought and you could hardly control them at all."

The seventh grade student said that profanity, bullying, and stealing were relatively commonplace on his bus ride.

Handling bad behavior and parent complaints

Under district policy, bus drivers are responsible for maintaining orderly conduct on school buses and may give students assigned seats. However, any disciplinary action beyond that is the responsibility of the district. While consequences are ultimately left to the discretion of school administrators, guidelines are set for the consequences of certain types of behavior. Under those guidelines, even the first instance of "major infractions"—which include theft, vandalism, repeated use of profanity, physical or verbal harassment, and fighting—are supposed to be dealt with by contacting parents, bus suspension, or in-school discipline, such as detention. However, a data request made by the Winona Post revealed that those guidelines were not always being followed. Multiple cases of "major infractions" including incidents of fighting, harassment, and repeated use of profanity resulted in students receiving verbal warnings or assigned seats.

A parent of a kindergartner and a middle school student said that when she called school administrators and the bus company to report that her daughter had been bullied and threatened on the bus, she felt her complaints were not taken seriously. "The school is saying it's the bus company's responsibility when kids are on the bus, and the bus company is saying it's the school's responsibility." She continued, "They assign seats, but that's about it. It doesn't stop the problem."

Conversely, Windley-Daoust said that the bus company was very responsive to his complaints. When he complained to Minnesota City Bus Services of incidents his children had experienced or witnessed, company officials acknowledged that they could not control everything that happens on the bus because drivers cannot see what is going on behind the seats. "You don't need the bus company to admit that to realize that the bus driver is not going to be able to see everything that goes on in the back of bus," stated Windley-Daoust.

Blindspots in supervision

The policies of both the district and Minnesota City Bus Services hold bus drivers responsible for keeping students in line while on the bus.

However, it is easy to see how maintaining order is difficult for a school bus driver. A full-sized school bus is about 35 feet long, carries upwards of 50 students, and has seat-backs that are often taller than their occupants. Keeping an eye on that many kids while safely maneuvering an oversized vehicle through traffic is no small challenge.

"It's a little stressful. I spent more time looking in the mirror backwards than watching were I'm going," Bursack laughed. He grew serious, though, as he talked about the challenge of staying focused on the road while driving kids who just will not listen. Even kids being out of their seat, which is hardly shocking behavior, is a serious safety concern. "If you've got ten students standing and goofing around and you hit the brakes very quickly, they're going to go flying all over," Bursack explained.

Bursack said he would frequently pull the bus over and would always file written reports of incidents. The school district followed through with discipline, but sometimes it took a while. "I think they were overwhelmed sometimes," he said.

Not only is it difficult to watch kids and the road, bus drivers simply cannot see the entire bus. Kids tend to act up more on the bus than in class, the local seventh-grader explained, because they know that bus drivers cannot see everything, especially in the back of the bus.

Hannon agreed that the high seat-backs prevented drivers from seeing everything that happens on the bus. The bus ride is "a difficult spot" in the day for maintaining supervision, he said.

There are cameras on just under half of the buses the district uses—and the district plans to add four more next year—but these, too, provide a limited view of what goes on in the rear of the bus.

The Winona Post attempted to contact the manager of Minnesota City Bus Company to gain her perspective on the issue of managing student behavior on local buses. However, the Post was referred to a spokesperson from Minnesota City Bus Services' parent company in Chicago, who simply said, "it is always somewhat challenging."

When it comes to incidents like the kids who were passing around pornography on their smartphones, "there's no reasonable way a bus driver can control that kind of behavior," Windley-Daoust said. The district simply needs someone to watch kids on the bus, especially in the back.

Two parents of Winona Middle School students said they thought the district should post aides on every bus, or at least buses with many complaints, to help supervise kids. Hannon, who is currently helping to guide the district through a series of budget cuts, said such a program would be very expensive. "There are probably not very many school districts in the country that have the resources to put a bus aide or bus supervisor on every bus," he said.

Windley-Daoust suggested that putting cameras in the back of buses as well as the front would be a cost effective way of providing better supervision. That, too, would have a cost—$1,500 per camera, according to the district—but would be a fraction of the cost of hiring aides.

Bursack was skeptical of such a plan. "They would have to hire ten people to watch film," he laughed. "I do not think the camera itself is much of a deterrent." Having live adults aboard to supervise, calm situations, and provide real-time consequences would be more effective, he thought.

Bursack did have a paraprofessional from the district ride on his bus after repeated behavioral problems. That helped, he said, but in that situation, some of the kids who were causing the trouble just did not care what happened to them. "It is just as much on the consequence end, I think," he said. "If the parents at home don't care," he explained, it is hard to control kids.

Kids will be kids

Parents interviewed by the Winona Post agreed that bullying, fighting, profanity are things kids will inevitably be exposed to. Still, they said, the school still has a responsibility to supervise, discipline, and care for kids while on school buses. "If my kids are acting up at home, I take care of it," the parent of an elementary student and middle school student said. "If this is happening on the bus it is now the school's job to take care of it, and they're just not."

While safe driving should be a bus driver's first priority, the parent said, bullying is important too. "It's great that my kids can get to school in one piece, but if internally they're broken in pieces, they're not being safely delivered to school," she said.

Windley-Daoust said he had encountered adults who thought it was no big deal that kids shared pornography on the bus. "I don't know what to say to those people other than it matters to me that my kids are not exposed to pornography and swearing at a young age."

He added, "It's always worth having a conversation about kids' safety and not just turning a blind eye to it. I don't see it as parents against the school district or bus company."

The Winona Post agreed to allow the student and some of the parents interviewed for this story to speak anonymously due to concerns that the student and the parents' children might be subjected to increased bullying or harassment as a result of this article.



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