The fight between two middle school boys was captured on video showing one boy repeatedly punching another student cornered in his seat and kicking back in self-defense.
According to research on bullying, fights breaking out on school buses is not unusual, particularly among boys. But what was different in last year's brawl on a bus in Tennessee was the recording was made by a student, not a camera that many school districts across the country install to prevent bullying on buses.
Shaun Adams, systems specialist with Alpine School District, looks over archive footage from a school bus in American Fork on Friday, March 17, 2017. Alpine School District has added monitors and cameras on its buses to create a safe bus culture to help with bullying. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
A 2015 study conducted by Seon demonstrated video surveillance to be the most popular and effective way to combat school bullying in the U.S. and Canada. Sixty-three percent of surveyed schools reported that bus cameras are the most effective anti-bullying tool.
But some advocates contend more effective prevention is providing resources to help identify problems and intervene early so that fights and other abuse among students don't happen.
"Cameras only capture what’s going on after the bullying takes place, but what we want to do is catch the bullying before it takes place," said Mildred Peyton, a Maryland social policy researcher on bullying and the author of the children's book “A Bully on the School Bus.”
The problem with transportation
Bullying on the school grounds or online anytime and anywhere is well-documented. But recent research has revealed other places where students can act out inappropriately, including when they travel to and from school. According to a study conducted by Awareity, 44 percent of students say they've witnessed or experienced bullying on the school bus.
Ottawa Public Health epidemiologist Hugues Sampasa-Kanyinga took a deeper look at when and where bullying takes place by surveying middle school and high school students about their transportation methods and whether they had been bullied.
Prevalence of bullying victimization by mode of travel to and from school | Aaron Thorup, Elsevier
For males, bullying took place on school buses to and from school more than any other mode of transportation, while females experience more bullying through “active transportation” — walking or riding bikes to school, according to her study in the August 2016 issue of the international journal Child Abuse and Neglect.
Nearly one-third (28 percent) of male students and 31 percent of females were reportedly bullied on the bus to school. Slightly more female students (32.5 percent) reported being bullied when they walked or rode their bikes to school, compared to males who reported being bullied 18.6 percent of the time when walking to school.
The numbers change slightly when children go home from school. For males, the share of bullying incidents on the bus ride home goes up to 29.3 percent, while it drops to 29 percent of females. Slightly more females are still bullied more going home via active transportation.
"We demonstrated that bullying is happening on school (buses) and emphasized the need for bullying prevention efforts to target school buses to make children’s commute a safe and enjoyable experience," Sampasa-Kanyinga wrote in an email.
School buses and cameras
School bus drivers across the country safely maneuver a 15-plus ton vehicle full of rowdy kids to and from school every day and often exposed to students at their worst. According to a National Education Association survey on issues relating to bullying, bus drivers were more likely than other education support professionals (ESPs) to report witnessing bullying, with 92 percent of drivers feeling it is their duty to intervene when bullying occurs.
Six years ago, former school bus driver Shaun Adams drove thousands of students to and from school for the Alpine School District. Today, Adams’ job is to make sure Alpine’s bus cameras are functioning and to watch footage when bullying incidents are reported. Even though Alpine buses are fully equipped with cameras, Adams still trains bus drivers on how to look for signals — verbal or silent — of bullying.
Shaun Adams, systems specialist with Alpine School District, diagnoses camera operation on a school bus in American Fork on Friday, March 17, 2017. Alpine School District has added monitors and cameras on its buses to create a safe bus culture to help with bullying. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
Adams said the training helps bus drivers recognize signs of bullying so they can intervene or look into a possible bullying incident in case a victim does not report a bully.
"As we hire new bus drivers, we provide a section of our training under a student management class. This training provides drivers with how to spot, stop and prevent bullying on school buses," Adams wrote in an email.
If a bus driver suspects there is a bullying incident or if the driver witnesses a fight or foul language, Adams said they are required to file a report that prompts Adams to look through the camera footage and find the incident.
A camera on a school bus in American Fork on Friday, March 17, 2017. Alpine School District has added monitors and cameras on its buses to create a safe bus culture to help with bullying.| Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
When he drove buses, Adams relied on training and student reports to de-escalate any emergency situations. He recalled an incident with two girls who developed a crush on the same boy and started to call each other names. Although Adams was aware of their situation, it escalated to a point where the two girls ended up fighting on school grounds.
“In my opinion, the girls wouldn’t have acted out the way they did if there were cameras on my bus” because they would have been aware they were being recorded, Adams said.
Ninety-five percent of Alpine School District buses are equipped with eight cameras recording the kids' movements throughout the vehicle. When the cameras were installed in 2013, incident reports were cut in half, said Alpine School District spokeswoman Kimberly Bird.
In addition to cameras and driver training, each school bus in Alpine has three posted signs about their no-bullying policy, along with URLs for stopbullying.gov in Utah and the Utah State Board of Education’s bullying prevention pages. Both websites cover the definition of bullying along with Utah state laws regarding the anti-bullying legislation.
Bus monitor effectiveness
But Peyton believes more should be done beyond cameras in buses. “Research I’ve done indicates that cameras are being used in most schools, however it’s not good enough,” Peyton said.
She recalled her fourth-grade daughter’s recent bullying incident at school. When Peyton called the school district, she was bothered by its response when the district said it would check its cameras to see when and where the bullying took place.
Peyton advocates having an adult, besides the driver, supervising children and reminding them of school policies to ensure that each child is in a safe environment. The difference between the physical presence of a bus monitor and a camera is that the camera cannot intervene when a bullying incident occurs.
"By this, the bus aide would be able to make direct eye contact and engage in a conversation with students on the bus. This type of interaction will encourage a positive and friendly environment, and also set the tone," Peyton wrote in an email. "It will allow bus aides to know students on a personal level, which some may need — kinda like a trusted adult or a mentor figure."
Peyton said the physical presence of a bus aide also helps identify victims of bullying that a camera cannot accomplish on its own. A bus aide has the ability to report any incidents at a faster pace.
“School districts need to prioritize bus aides and school aides, whether it’s a parent volunteering or a trusted adult who works with the school," she said.
Positive behavior enforcement
In Washington state, Walla-Walla Public Schools has used school bus cameras for about 10 years, but has coupled that with an anti-bullying culture to foster a safe school bus environment.
Mark Higgins, the media relations specialist with Walla-Walla Public Schools, said the district adopted the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Support program, which promotes and rewards good behavior both inside and outside the classroom. PBIS is used in approximately 23,363 schools in the U.S. and Canada.
The curriculum includes training all school workers, including bus drivers, custodians and cooks, to recognize good behavior and provide additional help for students who need it. Higgins said bus drivers are trained to recognize and acknowledge students with good behavior by rewarding those students in front of their peers.
Chris Stevenson drives a school bus with Shaun Adams in American Fork on Friday, March 17, 2017. Alpine School District has added monitors and cameras on its buses to create a safe bus culture to help with bullying. | Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
“The older students help the younger students by reminding them of the bus rules and behavior expectations,” Higgins said. "There are many positive stories the school bus drivers report on a daily basis.”
Having both cameras and the PBIS program improved the overall environment in WWPS buses. “Bus drivers have another tool to use when working with students. This process rewards good behavior and helps improve the overall climate and culture on the school bus," Higgins said. "The cameras allow the district to view what is happening on the bus and take corrective action as needed.”