Friday, August 25, 2000

Back to school: Foil those bullies on the bus

Prepare students, talk to officials to stop intimidating behavior among kids

By Cindy Kranz
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        It's the first day on the bus for a nervous 6-year-old girl who's wearing a new outfit with matching hairbows.

        She sits in the fourth seat back on the left with a friendly neighbor, but there's a cluster of 10-year-old girls behind her. “Look at the dweeb's hairbows,” one says. The others laugh. The first-grader is humiliated to tears and won't wear the hairbows again.

        That kind of scenario fills many children with dread as school resumes. For some, back to school means back-to-bullying on the bus.

        While bullies are everywhere — the playground, locker rooms, the cafeteria, they thrive on school buses where they have a captive audience and a bus driver whose focus is on the road.

  William Voors, a Fort Wayne, Ind., psychotherapist who conducts bully awareness and prevention workshops, offers these suggestions for bully-proofing the bus:

  • Try to ignore the bully. Bullies often stop if they don't have an audience. Ignoring may be difficult, however. Sometimes, it can't be done.
  • If you continue to be bullied, tell the bully to stop. Look him or her in the eye, and without name calling, say, “I want you to stop it.”
  • Try to sit with kids who are friends, or at least kids you feel safe with.
  • Don't provoke the bully by staring because staring is seen as confrontational.   • Practice sitting up straight. Walk tall. Walk confident. Targets of bullies often slouch in their seats or when they walk, which fuels the bully.
  • If problems continue, tell the bus driver. If that doesn't help, tell the principal. Tell your parents.

  • Listen to your children when they tell you they're being bullied.
  • Try to brainstorm solutions with your child.
  • Document in writing what happened, where, when and who your child is having problems with. Report the information to the school principal. Find out the school's policy and what the school is going to do about your child's situation.
  • Try not to be confrontational. Maintain a cooperative attitude because schools are usually trying to do their best.
  • If your child has been physically or sexually assaulted, tell police and the school.

        “I think the kids are trying to find their own space and see what they can and cannot do,” says Phil Hackett, principal at Greene Intermediate School, Blue Ash. “It tends to calm down as kids adjust to each other, as kids are punished for things they shouldn't be doing, and as kids begin to understand the expectations the bus driver has.”

        Being educated and prepared can help students and school administrators defend against the school-bus bully, says Mr. Hackett and other experts. So can practicing techniques to deflect or prevent bully behavior. Techniques range from using humor to defuse a situation to hiring school bus monitors.

        The first step is making sure students know what bully behavior is. Bullying is saying or doing anything hostile that hurts another person, making them feel uncomfortable, unsafe or intimidated. It can be physical, verbal, sexual or emotional. And it happens everywhere — in the city and in the suburbs.

Real life

        Three 11-year-old students at Greene Intermediate School and Sycamore Junior High say the worst bullying they've encountered is on the bus and at the bus stop. The Enquirer is not naming bully targets or their parents to avoid further harassment.

        When one student was a fifth-grader, four junior high students on the bus physically bullied him and taunted him by calling him “gay.”

        Experts warn to watch for bullies who manipulate the situation and get the target in trouble. That's what happened to this boy.

        “I was called gay. They'd say it softly, and I'd say, "No, I'm not!' loudly. The bus driver hears me and writes me up.” The bullying didn't stop until the end of the year.

        Another boy was ridiculed last year for the slightest thing — if he sneezed loudly or if he tried to sit in a different seat. “They wouldn't let me go past without punching or tripping me. I told the bus driver. The situation improved, but didn't stop.”

        A sixth-grade girl dreaded the bus and bus stop, where two other girls hunted for any flaw in her appearance and even belittled her for chapped lips. “You can get hurt from the slightest thing they say ... You never forget it.”

Why the bus?
        What is it about the bus that makes bullying so inviting? “The bus drivers aren't watching, and the kids know that,” the 11-year-old girl says.

        Indeed, a bus driver's first responsibility is to make sure every child on the bus, including bullies, arrive at school and home safely.

        The wide span of ages found on an elementary school bus contributes to bullying, experts say. It's possible to have 5-year-olds mixing with 11-year-olds.

        “Kindergartners whose feet don't touch the floor have to navigate society through this unrestricted, unsupervised setting,” says Robin D'Antona, executive director of an after-school program in Reading, Mass., and a school board member for nine years. “Some school districts have kindergarten buses, but what protects the first-grader the next year?”

        A Landen woman thinks it's a mistake to mix ages on a bus. Last year, her first-grader was assigned to sit with a 9-year-old boy. “Our son came off the bus in March crying and holding a paper that said he was suspended from the bus for two days,” she says.

        Her son mistakenly brought his school supplies, and the boy took the scissors out of her son's book bag. When her son tried to get them back, the boy cut her son's jacket. Both boys were suspended — her son for carrying a concealed weapon and the other boy for cutting the jacket.

        It wasn't until this incident that she learned the boy routinely took things from her son, tripped him, took his hat and called him names. The bus driver moved them closer to the front, but kept them sitting together. She was appalled.

        “I informed the school and transportation that I didn't want our son sitting by this child for the rest of the year. We didn't have any problems after that.”

What you can do

        Targets, witnesses, parents, bus drivers and schools can help prevent and reduce bullying on the bus.

        “We always tell the children to report everything to the driver,” says Ella Hamilton, a Petermann bus employee who works with the Cincinnati Public Schools on student discipline. “Communicate with the driver. Let the driver know if someone is bothering them. Do not try to take it into their own hands.”

        The No. 1 deterrent to bullying and harassment is adult supervision and knowing there are consequences to your behavior, says Ms. D'Antona, who is writing a book on bullying in athletics.

        Bullies are devious. Bullying happens, by design, when there are no adults around, experts say.

        School bus monitors are the best solution, says William Voors, a Fort Wayne, Ind. psychotherapist and author of The Parents Book About Bullying: Changing the Course of Your Child's Life (Hazelden; $11), due out in September.

        “Some schools put video cameras on buses, but all video cameras do is catch kids misbehaving,” Mr. Voors says. “They aren't preventing problems from occurring. Buses should have monitors so situations won't get to the point where a child needs to be suspended.”

        SuEllen Fried and her daughter, Dr. Paula Fried, a clinical psychologist, believe witnesses who report bullying are key to stopping bullying on buses and elsewhere.

        The two experts on bullying were here last week conducting the Academy of Medicine Alliance of Cincinnati's Bullies & Victims workshop, training 90 school and community professionals in bully prevention.

        Parents, they say, need to help kids rehearse, whether they're practicing walking confidently past a bully or using humor to disarm them. Witnesses need to rehearse, as well.

        Although they acknowledge some children solve the problem by whacking the bully, they discourage it.

        “When you talk about fighting back, you have to impress on kids it is too risky,” says SuEllen Fried, who knows of two boys who got off a bus to settle a score. One put up his fists, and the other shot him.

        “We have brains. We have words. We have other alternatives.”


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