Ryan Coomber was repeatedly pushed, shoved and taunted on the bus on the way from his kindergarten class. He even suffered a black eye. When his parents weren’t satisfied that the school was acting to protect their son, they went to the media last May, and the story became national news.
Why such drastic action? “We went up the chain of command from teacher to school superintendent, and they told us there was nothing they could do. Finally, they said we would have to drive Ryan to and from school,” says his father, from their home in Willow Bunch, Sask.
Outside of the school playground, school bus bullying is the most common form of bullying among school-aged children, according to Wendy Craig, a professor of psychology at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., who has spent the past 20 years on bullying prevention. It can also be difficult to combat because there’s little adult supervision on a bus. Among younger children, bullying on the bus most often takes the form of verbal abuse (insults, threats and taunts), social bullying or exclusion or, less commonly, physical abuse. “It can be the worst part of a child’s day,” says Cindi Seddon, a Coquitlam, BC, school principal and the founder of bullybeware.com.
According to Craig, only about 50 percent of kids tell someone they’re being bullied because they fear retaliation or that they’ll get into trouble. That means parents need to be on the lookout for signs, including anxiety about riding the bus or going to school, avoiding the bus by being late or ask ing for rides, a loss of interest in school or a drop in grades, damaged or missing possessions and torn clothing.
A bully on the bus is doubly difficult to deal with because the behaviour is often undetected by adults. That means parents have to be proactive about making sure it stops. Here’s how:
Believe your child Let him know that bullying is wrong and that you will help put a stop to it. “Don’t promise to keep a secret,” says Seddon, “but do promise that you won’t do anything without your child’s knowledge.” When the adults take over completely, that can add to a child’s feelings of helplessness in the situation. Children who participate in the solution feel empowered.
Send the right messages Children who are being bullied need to know they are not alone, it’s not their fault, and that if they tell someone, they will be helped, says Katie Neu, the 18-year-old founder of bullyingcanada.ca, a website created by and for youth targets of bullying. “Don’t ask what your child did to provoke the bully,” she adds.
Strategize a response “You can’t ignore a bully because they’ll keep at it,” says Neu. Bullies are looking for tears, anger, frustration or hurt. “Hard as it is, kids should try not to cry because that’s seen as a sign of weakness by a bully,” says Seddon. Instead, what often works is a show of strength; tell the bully to buzz off or get a life. While it may be tempting, don’t counsel kids to hit back because violence tends to lead to more violence.
Meet with the principal School bus bullying is the responsibility of the school, says Craig. “The bus is an extension of the school,” he says. While drivers have a responsibility to report school bus bullying to the school authorities, they can’t always effectively deal with it when it is happening because they are concentrating on watching the road.
When parents report bullying, they should have detailed information — names, dates, what happened. They should then be prepared to work with the school to develop an action plan, and follow up. “Most schools have safe school policies and are pretty good about intervention when there’s a bullying incident, but they may not be as effective in making sure ongoing problems are stopped,” says Craig. “It’s also important that parents ask what they can do to support the plan.”
Don’t rely on the driver to discipline kids The driver should be involved or at least informed about a plan to deal with bullying, but may not always be able to intervene on the drive to and from school. In some cases, drivers will pull over if a child reports they’re being bullied, says Neu. There should be a reporting system between the driver and the staff person who meets the bus, says Craig. “Immediate disciplinary measures, establishing a seating plan and, in some cases, putting volunteer adults on the bus can be really effective.” Sometimes moving a targeted child to a seat up front on the right, where she’s in earshot of the driver, is enough to deter a bully. Make sure your child knows the bus driver’s name and feels comfortable speaking to her.
Connect your child Encourage friendships with another child on the bus by arranging playdates outside of school. An older child might agree to be your child’s mentor and friend on the bus.