When the school bus becomes a scary place

Every morning across the country yellow school buses make their rounds. For many students, the bright splash of color reflects their eagerness to board the bus and see friends.

But there are others for whom the yellow means caution: bullies on board.

The bus was not a safe place for Doug Langlois. The Sandwich, Mass., high school student says he was riding the bus to school one morning last month when a classmate beat him after an altercation involving tossed jellybeans.

Other students on the bus said that they shouted to the driver to stop when they saw that Doug was injured and almost unconscious. But, according to press accounts, the students said the bus continued on to make five more pickups and then drive to the school, passing police and fire stations en route. (The driver said he had radioed ahead to to alert school officials to the situation.)

An arrest warrant has since been issued for the student Doug says hit him.

But the incident was not the first time a student has leveled charges of cruel bullying on a school bus.

In the United States, about 160,000 children miss school every day for fear of being bullied, according to the National Association of School Psychologists. Some of these children endure rides on buses where bullies have the run.

Victims complain that these tormentors verbally abuse other students, tackle and pin kids down, and steal hats and books and throw them around the bus.

"Worst of all, the targets have no escape," says Barbara Coloroso, author of "The Bully, The Bullied, and The Bystander: Breaking the Cycle of Violence." The bus is only one venue where young victims of bullies may be trapped. "The key is, there is no adult supervision," says Ms. Coloroso. "Bullies can be everywhere - on the playground, in locker rooms, in the hallways and cafeteria."

School buses, though, present a particular opportunity for bullies because they offer a captive audience and little adult supervision, experts say.

In the US, about 24 million students ride the school bus every day, according to School Transportation News.

For many parents, it's enough to know that the bus driver is able to get their children to and from school safely, no matter the weather, no matter the noise level. Bus drivers can't be expected to monitor student behavior as well, and bus bullies know that, says Coloroso.

But someone must do so, some argue.

"Riding on the bus is a privilege, and it's not for kids who abuse it," says Joel Haber, a psychologist based in West- chester, N.Y., and an expert in violence prevention. "The bus needs to become a safe place. Children who are bullied need to know it's a safe place."

Some schools have installed video monitors on buses - a step Dr. Haber says doesn't go far enough.

"Video cameras are useless," he insists. "Kids think about the cameras for about a minute. And bullies are smart, they will bully from behind the seats. Monitors [nondriving adults who ride the bus] are better because they are real live people who will document and report and make [bullies] lose privileges."

Adult monitors could create an atmosphere of safety, suggest some experts. The most powerful deterrents to bullying are adult supervision and the knowledge that bad behavior has consequences.

Schools and bus companies do not necessarily agree.

"Monitors are not the answer. Parents are already complaining that their children are spending too much time on the bus. Let's not create a problem where there is none," says Yvonne Ehrismann, who has driven a bus in Weston, Conn., for the past 13 years.

In January, two Connecticut legislators introduced a bill to require that all school buses have school-bus monitors.

The bill, however, died in the state's transportation committee because of funding concerns. A similar proposal - considered almost 10 years ago - was estimated to cost $50 million to $80 million.

Using the budget as an excuse doesn't fly, protests Haber.

"You need a community-service-minded school district," Haber says. "Offer high school students the chance to earn community-service credits for riding the elementary school buses. Seek volunteers among the retired in the community."

But others say schools will not find effective solutions to what Coloroso calls the "school climate of mean" until they learn to deal with the root causes of bullying. Most schools don't have a definition of bullying, she says. Many still consider it a simple conflict between two people.

"Sure, a school can have zero-tolerance plans, mandate a bully-awareness week, and even stiffen the penalties," says Coloroso. "But none of that means anything unless schools understand that bullying isn't about anger or conflict. It's about contempt, a sense of entitlement - the right to control and dominate someone."

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