What to do about school-bus bullying

Bullies, chaos, and nowhere to go. It’s a free-for-all getting to school. Can your kid survive?

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Photo: Zoey Berkovic

Photo: Zoey Berkovic

Anticipating my six-year-old daughter, Esme’s entry into “big school” last year, I wondered how she’d handle all the transitions that were being thrown at her: a new school, a new teacher, new friends, even a new language, since she was starting French immersion. But my biggest anxiety was that she’d have to take the bus because of the distance to our area’s French immersion school.

My own memories of riding the bus to and from school are dominated by the gruff and growling driver of my route, Mr. Smith. Rumour was he’d hit a kid once. Hell, he’d kick you off the bus just for eating an orange (his alleged allergy). His reputation was such that no kid even tried to act up on Mr. Smith’s route — we were all too afraid! Maybe it wasn’t so relaxing, but at least he never lost any of us. Which is what happened in the first week of school on my daughter’s route. Twice. Both times the kids in question hadn’t even gotten on the afternoon bus and were sitting in the school office, but the driver had no clue a child wasn’t accounted for and it took panicked phone calls by upset parents to locate them.

Read more: How your kid can help stop bullying>

It only takes a few conversations with parents who are experienced with the bus system to turn up many stories like these. At a time when parents are chastened for overprotecting their offspring to helicopter proportions, the school bus is a time of rare and almost complete freedom. For better or for worse. More than one parent I spoke to described the atmosphere of their child’s school bus by invoking The Lord of the Flies.

From a physical perspective, school buses are among the safest vehicles on the road. Only 0.3 percent of collisions in Canada involve school buses. And though many newbie parents are shocked to put their kid on one of the big 72-passenger buses without seat belts, that’s safer, too. The seats are designed to be “compartmentalized” and do less damage to children’s smaller bodies in the case of an accident than an ill-fitting seat belt. If only the kids would just sit quietly in their seats.

Miwa Yamada’s nine-year-old daughter, Kaiya, is no pushover. So two years ago, when an older kid on her bus started snatching her toys and snacks, taunting her with them and threatening to hit her, she did as her parents instructed and told the bully to back off. Loudly. Which worked for Kaiya, but made the bully move on to quieter kids. The school was made aware of the situation, meetings with the boy’s parents were had, warnings were given, but the torment continued. It took two years for him to be removed from the bus. Says Yamada, “I think the school was trying to be fair to all the parties. The last thing they want to do is kick a student off the bus.”

Read more: Teasing on the bus>

The Toronto District School Board’s Student Transportation Services department told me that the expense of having adult supervisors on the bus (other than the driver) is too costly, and that it’s up to the principal of each school to let students know how they should behave. Generally across Canada, the only kids who are given adult supervision on school buses are those with special needs.

Some schools have come up with another strategy — using older students as monitors to help maintain transportation peace. But this too can backfire.

Joanne Made’s 11-year-old daughter, June, was having a hard time with a classmate whom she was assigned to sit next to every day on the bus. The other girl would insist on deciding whether she wanted the window or aisle seat each day, and shove June to get her desired spot. While discussing how to handle what Made calls “the vacuum of power” of the bus, June told her about the student monitors that her school put in place. These older, responsible kids are given the job of controlling bad behaviour (or at least reporting it back to the school). “But in the absence of real power,” says Made, “other kids try to take over from the actual student monitor. They say, ‘Oh, I’m working with the bus supervisor.’ They actually abuse the system by pretending to write notes to give to the principal or teacher!”

Imagine if every commute to and from work involved an emotionally draining encounter like bullying, or simply the chaos that can reign on the school bus. Made says school mornings became increasingly stressful for her and her daughter, with June dreading the bus and Made having to drag her down the street to get to the pickup spot. And the end of the day was worse. “Every day for the last month of school, she cried when she got off the bus.” An impending switch of schools for June (for reasons unrelated to the bus stress) meant that Made didn’t feel the need to go to the school with her concerns, but she was relieved.

Read more: Is your daughter a mean girl?>

“I think the cause of the drama is that the kids are tired and frustrated from their day,” says Yamada. “And any tension is being played out between children that they’re already having problems with in class.”

None of the parents I spoke to have decided to give up on the bus, although some of their kids have. One mom said her two tween daughters would rather walk two-and-a-half kilometres to school than suffer the overcrowding and chaos. But many parents don’t have an option. Perhaps they have other kids going to other schools, making the transportation riddle more complicated, or live in suburban or rural areas where there simply aren’t any good alternatives to a long bus commute.

As for my daughter, she has had minor upsets on the bus, but they’re much like the ones she has at recess. This girl didn’t want to sit with me. That girl brings an iPad on the bus, why can’t I have one? But it’s also her favourite part of the day. Probably for all the reasons it gives parents anxiety – there’s no one in charge.

Beating the bus

How can parents help de-stress the bus for their kids? We asked London, Ont., parenting expert and psychotherapist Andrea Nair for some tips:

* Bullying usually happens away from adults; instruct younger children to sit near the driver.

* Safety in numbers! Even in a half-full bus, have your children sit with others.

* Enlist the help of a trusted, older neighbourhood kid who also rides the bus to be your child’s personal bus buddy. (This can be a paid position if you’d like.)

A version of this article appeared in our September 2013 issue with the headline “The not-so-magic schoolbus,” pp. 58-60.

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