BOSTON — When Robert Calcavechia was hired to drive a school bus in New York eight years ago, he was handed the keys and told simply to drive to the nearest police station if the kids gave him trouble.
Today, he's getting a little more help. His school in Brodheadsville, Penn., offers yearly training in handling discipline problems. He and fellow drivers practice suggested techniques by acting out situations.
Mr. Calcavechia says the training represents a "180-degree change," one which helps him deal with the fistfights and smoking that have cropped up with his school-aged clients.
Ask many administrators and drivers across the United States to name the key challenge in the $10-billion-a-year job of transporting children to school, and they'll agree: law and order. The issue can be the make-or-break point in keeping drivers on the job. It can also determine a child's attitude toward school. As a result, more districts are trying a variety of techniques to help drivers clamp down on everything from arms out the window to bullying:
* "Passenger management." Bus drivers for Durham Student Transportation, which operates in Texas, California, Oregon, and Washington, learn how to build rapport with students and defuse anger. Drivers refresh their skills with a 10-hour session each year.
* Electronic monitors. By 1996, more than 79 percent of school districts nationwide were using video surveillance on at least some buses, according to School Bus Fleet, an industry publication.
* Clear-cut explanations of the consequences for offenses. In Boston, a new program resulted in banning 86 children from the bus last year. In Jefferson County, Ala., a similar program has greatly improved bus behavior over five years, says Kevin Walsh, a school-board member.
To Mr. Walsh, also an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, it pays to train drivers and communicate more clearly with students.
Driving a bus is "the most difficult job you can have," he says. "Most drivers have little education and training other than how to drive a bus. They are driving 60 kids with their backs turned to them. We train teachers. They face 25 kids and still have trouble."
According to a 1996 survey by School Bus Fleet, student misbehavior was the main stumbling block to driver retention. Low wages ranked second.
Many bus drivers welcome the move toward stricter discipline. "Kids aren't as nice as they used to be," complains Wayne Barnes, who has driven in Wilks County, N.C., for 13 years. Parents and administrators should take bus behavior seriously, he says. "Drivers can be distracted for a few seconds and students can be in a very dangerous situation."
Many of the programs now in place aim to avoid tense showdowns between students and drivers. "There's no way you're going to win with force of will with middle-school kids," says Joe Hixon, whose Seattle-based Strategies company has developed a training program used nationwide. Instead, he promotes rapport. "If you've got a gang-banger coming onto your bus, you nail him with your eyes, make contact, say, 'How you doing?' That way, he knows you're a player."
In addition to safety, there are strong educational reasons for making that early experience of the school day a positive one.
"Studies have shown that children who are involved in a discipline problem on the bus have a distinct learning disadvantage for the rest of the day," says Michelle Wallace of Durham Student Transportation, which transports more than 150,000 children. "What happens on the bus carries over directly into the learning environment."
Walsh says the next step for his school district in Alabama will be to cultivate a positive atmosphere on the buses. He says he is beginning to talk to drivers about how to make the bus environment more inviting to children, while still maintaining discipline.
He cites his daughter's experience. "Even though she had a ride, she said she wanted to ride the bus because she has fun with her friends. Her driver laughs and jokes with the kids at every stop. Sometimes he even has them sings songs all the way home," he says.
"We can't clone that guy but we can encourage drivers to create a positive environment for the children so the kids won't think this is the worst part of my day," Walsh says.
Sandra Chapman, who teaches elementary-school children in New York, agrees that building a positive relationship with the children is important for bus drivers.
"When children are on the bus they are away from their families. If the bus driver is a stranger to them they can feel unsafe, and if kids don't feel safe, they act up," she says.
Ms. Chapman says that schools need to establish consistent ground rules for bus riding that are explained in the classroom and reinforced at home.
"If there are rules that have been established by an institution, it gives the driver something to fall back on. If the driver can say that no standing on the bus is a school rule, the students will understand that it is something that adults have decided is good for them. It will be a child with a lot of discipline issues who does not follow these established rules," she says.