School Bus Bullying: Seven Lessons

In my article “School Bus Bullying? Look Who’s Taking Responsibility and Who’s Not” on Tuesday I reacted to the social uproar that attended the horror story of four seventh graders cruelly and mercilessly mocking a 68-year old bus monitor. Now that emotions have settled a bit from the initial shock, what becomes clear?

1)    Contrary to popular opinion there is a consensus: It is bad to be mean to people. Cruelty is wrong. Treat each other with decency and respect.

2)    Serious problems occur when adults in positions of authority don’t take responsibility. People—all mammals, actually—need to know that their leaders have authority. In fact, it makes them anxious and angry if they don’t. When the authority has no authority civility deteriorates because the civilians know their civilization is disordered. Children whose civil behaviors are not yet habits may be the first to show the symptoms of disorder. Children hate an authority vacuum, even if they have smiles on their faces.

3)    Different kids handle their insecurity in different ways.

4)    Adults in society teach social norms more from actions than words. Adults may think they are “teaching right from wrong,” but children might simply be learning what makes adults mad.

5)    Children compare what some adults say, with what other adults say, with what their peers say, with what people actually do, with what they see in the public media. They try to make sense of it all by forming hypotheses, and they test those hypotheses by acting things out in the real world and noting what happens.

6)    When they make mistakes, it’s good for children to get a comeuppance. There is a lot of disagreement about what form that should take and how it should be delivered. But suspending these four boys for a year is not proportional to responses taken in other cases of bullying. It is reactionary and would be a clear case of scapegoating by those who are technically responsible, but who feel powerless to make responsible decisions. Parents can help by standing by children as they suffer the consequences of their behavior and help them to understand. Blaming children and their parents is avoiding responsibility and scapegoating for a bigger, deeper problem.

7)    As children learn from their mistakes and work to make better and better decisions, they are trying to find their center, something to believe in, some point of integrity.  Integrity is not something you “teach” kids. Becoming integrated is a life-long project for all humans. (Adults don’t have a monopoly on integrity. For example, adults who stand up for respect and decency by making death threats, or insults, or advocating cruel and unusual punishments, lack integrity.)

Children are in search of adults with backbone. They need adults who can make decisions and take courageous stands. They need to see examples of people acting with courage, compassion and resilience. This search for integrity is why teenagers follow and idolize teachers with a strong center. Their need is so great that they are contemptuous of adults without backbone. (It’s not mature; it’s not good; it’s not graceful; but it is fair.)

Persisting questions:

1)    Do public school officials have the authority to do what is right for children?

2)    What role can each of us play in bringing better education to American children?

3)    Do parents and teachers want to be partners in building character in their children? Or will parents and teachers keep pointing fingers at each other while the children are left on their own to figure out how not to let their schooling interfere with their education?

To be reminded that hatred and evil still lurk in humans is upsetting, but let’s not project onto the children our own failings. Better for the adults to come together, learn from one another, and think creatively about what to do about a destructive, archaic approach to children. Let’s not treat the symptoms—let’s get to the root cause.

Let the record show that a child with a cell phone called this sorry state of affairs to our attention (a modern version of “The emperor has no clothes”). Let us look into the mirror the children are holding up to us.




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17 thoughts on “School Bus Bullying: Seven Lessons

  1. I think that number 7 is especially true: Children are looking for adults with backbone. Since having a child I find myself doing things that I would have in the past NOT done because I want my daughter to learn that it is important to do what’s right. To have integrity.

    At 5, we have already discussed why we don’t make fun of other children just because they are “weird”. We don’t refuse to play with others because of the clothes that they wear. If our friends do these things we acknowledge that we cannot control their choices but that we can control our own.

    We have had consequences in at least one of these cases when my daughter made the wrong choice. And, there were consequences amongst her playmates too. The adults agreed on a “punishment” that fit the “crime” and we all enforced it.

    It is important as parents to give the authority to educators and for educators to step up and take it. I play both sides of this. It is also difficult as an adult, in a school, to always do the right thing, but if I don’t there are plenty of young men and women who will see me.

    I am sure that I am not always the strongest parent or educator. I am sure that I don’t always do the right thing or react in an appropriate manner. However, I consider it part of both jobs (parent and educator) to consistently work towards these goals so that my daughter and my students can see that there can be integrity and at the very least striving for integrity.

  2. Anne, Beautiful!!
    …and your last paragraph makes the point that being good and right are not the critical factors in being a good parent or teacher, acting with integrity is, having a backbone, making decisions even if they are flawed decisions.

  3. One thing I have always wondered is why, where there is a scandal, and the top executive is under scrutiny, the commentariat often says “the CEO needs to show decisiveness and fire someone.” The same twisted logic is at play with the notion that suspending the kids would “send a clear message.”
    In the entry previous to this one, you zero in on the one undeniably relevant fact: somebody chose this woman to serve in this capacity, and in the moment that this event was going down, she was equipped with no counter-measures — either due to her training or the actual reality of the situation. She should have had the authority to direct the bus driver to stop the bus, access whatever ever device might connect her to the local police, who would come to the scene where upon this disturbance of the peace and harassment incident could be officially recorded as the crime that it is.
    BECAUSE — to lump points 5-7 into a single point — these kids are, in a sense, doing EXACTLY what they are supposed to be doing, exploring the boundaries by putting stimulus out into the environment and seeing what response they get. If the administrators fail to set up a mechanism by which there will be a consistent pattern of responses to various key (desired and undesired) behaviors, including as a mechanism, but not limited to, the recruitment and training of disciplinary point-person, then this is exactly the sort of breakdown of order that we should expect.
    Why are these kids on this bus? What do they have to look forward to today? Did the authority that determined that they would be on this bus at this moment have any particular vision for what these kids might accomplish on the other end of this bus ride? Do you? Do I? WE don’t — not as a collective.
    What is needed is leadership that understands the principles of pedagogy. This is not Obama’s core competency, perhaps, and that’s fine, but he needs to recruit experts know how to formulate a pedagogical objective. Bad pedagogical objective: “students will be able to answer 75 out of a hundred of these multiple choice questions correctly.” (Narrow and not meaningful.) Good pedagogical objective: “students will be able to coordinate on a national level on a project that ultimately places a man on the moon and brings him and his crew back safely.” Bad pedagogical objective: “students will have respect for their elders.” (Not empirically measurable. Not kinetic.) Good pedagogical objective: “students will be able to coordinate globally to overhaul our world civic infrastructure in such a way that the carbon footprint of our species is as far below zero in tonnage as it is presently above zero. Bad: “students will know about their history.” (Not Kinetic. Narrow.) Good: “students will be able to communicate competently with every other member of the species.”
    Give these kids a reason to get on the bus. Let’s make it magic.

  4. My reaction to this incident was “Only in America!” but not as a put-down, as a back-handed compliment. I’d never heard of, nor thought of the need for, monitors on school buses; certainly not at the grade-seven level. Off the top of my head the job seems a make-work project to help retirees earn pocket money.

    At best it might help a child with the odd runny nose but, much more likely, with teenagers on board trapped in enforced idleness, the bus monitor is a powder keg waiting for a hot day or tiniest spark. To me it’s a job created by an authority that should be administrating in a prison or pig farm, NOT in the nursery of tomorrow’s leaders of the greatest nation on earth.

    The Genius here (a capital ‘G’ because, after all, this is Rick Ackerly’s blog!) is with the student who decided to video the incident and carried on for some 10 minutes, and with whoever decided to upload it to Youtube. I would have LOVED to have been a fly on the wall of that debrief when the parents questioned the videographer about it! Then some Genius lies with the Toronto gentleman who took the initiative to set up a trust fund to compensate Karen Klein.

    Just look at the numbers; a zillion hits, over 600,000 dollars collected, multiple column-inches and many hours of media attention, wow! … “Only in (North) America!” I say; you guys (I’m British) really can put on a great show!

    Before we move forward, a few words on punishment, consequences or ‘comeuppance’ as Rick so charmingly phrased it. Everyone agrees there must be consequences for the bullies, but surely the suggestion of a year’s suspension is retaliation and not justice, such will turn mistake-makers into delinquents and maybe criminals; certainly it will negatively impact the rest of each life.

    Better a splash of Genius: target each bully to get a 10% improvement in marks across the board over the next 12 months and do 50 hours of community work. Not a nondescript non-job where they can hide in a corner, but roll-up-your-sleeves manual labour for a boss who looks real, sounds real and smells real. Have their school principal review their progress quarterly and issue (suitably redacted) press releases to the media sources that published initial stories. Such is justice and it is transparent.

    Now to move forward: this incident highlights in dramatic fashion the Gulf between the School World and Home World of a typical child. Clearly the answer is not to try to fill that unfortunate gap with an artificial, temporary, unreliable, ill-prepared doomed-to-failure entity called a Bus Monitor (sorry Karen et al!). Clearly the answer and priority is to minimize the Gulf by softening the edges of the Worlds and blending the extremities together with touches of Genius. There will still be a gap and the necessity of bus trips and bus drivers but that job can be beefed up with a couple of dabs of Genius (aka Common Sense).

    Consider these possible practicalities (Rick knows me by now, knows I like what is simple and doable). Peter Ackerly has just posted a comment that, I think, shows he and I are very much on the same page:

    1. 10 minutes before afternoon departure all the passengers of bus route 56 gather in classroom 6. That home-room teacher knows each of the students on that route, how long they’ll be on the bus, who gets on with who, who should be separated and who needs a little bit extra something. She/he also gets an idea of the homework each has that day and suggests what can be started, and how, on the bus trip home. In a nutshell, the teacher sets things up for the trip home, passing a note to the bus driver as need be.

    2. Bused students know, just as siblings learn at home, the universal law that older ones are (somewhat; you define it) responsible for younger ones; period. Teachers, parents, bus drivers, students of all ages, et al, know this and know that older children know that they know this, and will expect to see it in action. On the bus, the eldest child(ren) there are expected to monitor, small ‘m’, the others to ensure that all are being civil and courteous, and help smooth any bumps.

    3. 5 minutes before bus pick-up in the morning, the parent sets things up with the child; finish or review homework, chat with Martha about the movie they’re going to on Saturday, play such-and-such game, etcetera.

    4. At parent/teacher meetings bus trips are discussed and any kinks ironed on.

    5. Bus drivers are responsible for their passengers and buses, and their environments inside and out. They listen out for telltale sounds and, knowing names and ages, call out for assistance when something sounds amiss.

    6. When things get out of control, as sometimes they will for the best of us, the driver has fall-backs;

    a) A minor but noisy curfuffle; the driver pulls off the road, turns off the engine, telephones home base saying something like, “It’s Joe, route 56, I have a Code A; I’m at (location) with 7 students aboard; will advise when they’re normalized; bibi.” Then he pulls out the newspaper or a book and waits, waits silently and calmly ignoring his charges, whatever they may say or do. When he can see/hear that they have normalized themselves, he’ll say “Okay, thank you, now we can resume our journey.”

    Note: Don’t we, as parents, use this same process when we’re on a long car trip and our child(ren) get obstreperous; we pull off the road, turn off the engine, radio and electronics, and we wait for as long as it takes them to normalize themselves?

    b) If it’s a serious or potentially serious situation; the bus diver pulls over and calls, first, 911 and then his base, “I have a Code B” … ditto the above but he stays put until the police arrive and enforce normalization.

    So much of my thoughts from afar; have a wonderful Canada Day or Independence Day, or both!

    Three cheers from,
    Parent Peter in Toronto,

  5. THank you so much, PeterxPeter (how do you do Peter squared?)
    You are both teachers; you understand how children work and therefore how to preempt problems, prevent disasters, and turn any event into a teachable moment. In fact you point to what could be a three part essay questions to determine if a teacher is ready to be given responsibility for children.
    Common educators of America, get crackin’
    Thank you all (you, too, Anne Marie)

  6. #2. “Children hate an authority vacuum.”

    This relates to why ‘tough’ coaches and military officers are often idolized even if they may go slightly “too far”. My favorite HS math teacher, Brother Andy, did show ‘authority’ in this way. At reunions, many fellow students hated him for it (perhaps they correctly read ‘authority’ as ‘bullying’). He certainly did take charge. I liked how he presented and pushed us in math and I forgave or ignored his attitude problems. I do remember his anger at me in a school picnic football game as I backed up and blocked his punt (I was supposed to be blocking the other team 🙂 ). I thought it was an innocent and humorous mistake; he was a “bit” more upset as he screamed at me.

    Leadership with flaws is better than a cautious lack of leadership.

  7. Unfortunately, there seems to be much lacking in understanding of today’s pedagogical needs and common sense parenting. I am the foremost proponent of “good teaching is just good teaching.” But–let’s figure this together. It seems that altogether, the comments above are suggesting a lesson plan for the bus by the questions regarding student destinations, purpose, etc. Who would carry out this lesson plan? Have you considered the major ramifications of the bus driver pulling over and waiting until the students settle down or for making a phone call about ruckus while driving? Let’s say—as is possible–some random vehichle, an 18 wheeler, comes along and swipes the bus during this “routine stop?” There would be endless conversation and lawsuitb for

  8. Right. So the community needs to care enough to put response protocols in place (what I think you mean by a lesson plan) — carried out by the monitor, the driver, the local police, the district authorities (whose involvement would vary to whatever degree the nature of any particular incident demanded). And that means that the community needs to share and promote a vision. If we take no collective interest in what happens subsequent to the kids getting on the bus, we have no moral standing from which to punish them. We also, incidentally, are in no position to criticize the monitor or the bus driver.

  9. Oh, you speak so wisely, Jim and Peter A; but now we’re talking of different skills sets, those of management.

    “Man cannot live by bread alone” nor can mankind flourish and prosper with educators and education skills alone. If we can assume that we educators have a vision or two here that we feel will help solve some problems and enhance situations, then we visionaries need to hold on very tight to our visions and canvass managers with the mind set to share them and the executive skills to put in place the mechanisms needed to fulfill these visions.

    Most of our education falls within the public domain so the management skills required here are primarily of the political, bottom-up variety … that’s an interesting path but following it is something of a side-bar to this Rick’s education blog.

    Back to the here and now: I’ve just come across a newspaper photo of Karen Klein with four microphones visible inches from her face as she smiles at New York State Senator Joseph Robach at a Friday night rally in Greece, N.Y. The story goes on to tell us, “With a global audience reacting in anger and disbelief, the video has hit especially hard at home in Greece, a postwar suburb of about 96,000 people that hugs Lake Ontario’s southern shore. Thrust into the spotlight, the community is the epicentre of a scandal wrought by a small group of foul-mouthed children.”

    If we believe in the well-documented Six Degrees of Separation concept dating back to 1929, we can accept that readers of this blog are, on average, only six steps away, by way of introduction, from any other person involved in this incident or its fallout.

    So, who do we know – who do YOU know – in or around Greece, New York, or New York state or in any place else who may lead us to there? … Who all do we/YOU know in political arenas who may share our visions and wish to speak of them to their significant others? …

    Today is Canada Day; we have the same problem here, I’m calling it the Gulf between a child’s School World and Home World. Any movement towards its diminishment up here would be a birthday present for Canada, so please do share!

    Verily, it’ll also be a gift to the United States of America this Wednesday!

    Best wishes,
    Parent Peter in Toronto,

  10. Is there, as Peter says, a gulf between the School World and the Home World? and if so how to close the gap?

  11. I think there is a natural gulf between home and school, just as there is between home and hospital and home and court. But the gulf needs to be maintained. The gulf is created by the fact that whatever institution is gulfing (just made that verb up) with home is gulfing because the institution is (or at least should be) inhabited by trained professionals.

    We don’t generally (though occasionally we do) mind the home-hospital gulf nor the home-court gulf because doctors and lawyers, respectively, have traditionally done a much better job than educators have done of communicating why it is that we should think of them as professionals and then working internally to promote that professionalism.

    When we have the notion that “anyone can teach” then the shape of the gulf between home and school appears arbitrary and we get confused about what we want parents to do vis-a-vis the institution of the school. Do we want them to bust down the doors and kick ass and take names and tell us NOT to teach or TO teach this or that in this or that way? Do we want them to stay completely uninvolved with their children’s schooling?

    We don’t know because there is no professional guild — as there is with doctors and lawyers — on the school side of the home-versus-school gulf, defining the domain of the educator profession so that parents have something to push against.

  12. A closer look at society’s Worlds and their separations shows that what I generalized as “gulfs” in fact range in magnitude from cracks in the sidewalk over which children happily skip to gaps, gulfs, chasms and sneaky hidden crevasses. In this bus monitor bullying incident, the separation between Worlds and their guidances turned out to be the latter with lots of nasty pointy rocks at its bottom.

    Some children in rural Canada spend an hour each way five days a week being shook up in a noisy ill-equipped transportation device better suited to a cargo of gravel. At best, in a brand new bus riding over freshly-laid asphalt for a short distance, even a young child can guide herself through – comfortably bridging herself over what is, fingers crossed, a mere gap.

    Nature abhors a vacuum and dislikes physical discomfort. That day those four children did what children do, they made a mistake (granted it was a doozy of a mistake, and some bright spark caught it on video!). They fell off the rickety unsafe bridge that the administrators had/have in place between their School World and Home World, and were impaled by the consequences.

    Thanks for the reminder, Peter A.; of course the world is full of identities each with separations of time, space and detail (least each become a blurry ineffective inexactitude) but let’s not stray Rick’s last two posts away from the real problems and their practical solutions.

    Have a wonderful Independence Day but please do keep thinking about fixing the school-bus Bridge over the separation between a child’s School World and Home World!

    Parent Peter in Toronto,

  13. I am not a parent. Nor am I a professional educator. I am a licensed mental health professional so I typically lurk more often than I comment. However, I so appreciate your post and the discussions that take place here. They are thoughtful, respectful, and, most important to me, they are hope-filled and solution-focused.

    I appreciate your willingness, Rick, to tackle the difficulty subjects of our adult responsibilities for raising and educating our children and noting the many ways that we tie professional educators’ hands in doing so. And, Peter in Toronto, thank you for noting how we fail to treat our educators as the professionally trained individuals that they are. It seems apparent to many of us that our children (including those on the recent bus incident) are doing nothing other than mirroring the world that we have created for them.

    Rick, because you write and host this space for discussions that we all-too-often fail to engage in, I have nominated you for The Beautiful Blog Award here . It seemed like a simple way to tip my hat to you while also introducing my readers and others to these important conversations. Thank you for all that you do to improve the lives of educators and children.

  14. Thank you, Tamara, for coming out of the shadows and sharing in such a generous and gracious manner your professional appreciation of these pages and the shadows they cast.

    Frankly, in my part of the world, mental health professionals, educators and parents are seldom comfortable bed fellows so your words are a ray of sunshine, especially today, on this your 236th Independence Day.

    This important day traditionally celebrates a watershed day in the political existence of your country, considered the world leader in so many of the realms of our global family.

    A question, if I may, for all American readers: could not Independence Day also celebrate the successes of parenting and education that have made the United States of America what it is today, and are making it what it will be tomorrow? …

    Such a thought reflects the prime purpose of parenting; to assist the child move through three stages, from dependence to independence and inter-dependence, in so many facets of life.

    Given this fundamental premise, the purpose of education is the provision of and access to the wherewithal – the key basic data, vital techniques and tools, and the skills to use them – that enable the person to fulfill their individual passions and purposes in life.

    How about making July 4th the first day of a New Year that, in the United States of America, strengthens the nation’s parental purposes and reinforces those of education? …

    This begs a big question: what strokes of Genius could we each come up with and apply in our own universes to enhance the parenting and education of our children, and make the U.S. of A. an even better place for Independence Day #237? …

    Please ponder but, meanwhile, have a most wonderful relaxing and family-filled day!

    With a special three cheers for today,
    Parent Peter in Toronto,

  15. Thank you, Peter, and (belatedly back atcha:
    Here’s to “The true north strong and free”

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