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Anna G. Larson, Published January 28 2013

Driven to distress: Bullying on buses challenges area schools

MOORHEAD – Every morning that she could, Geneva Nemzek, 21, rode with her mom to Moorhead Junior High School.

She’d arrive an hour before class started, but getting up early was better than riding the bus.

On the bus, Nemzek was bullied by the same boy who made her school days difficult.

“The bullying on the bus was worse than the bullying at school because it happened a lot more,” Nemzek says. “The only person of power to stop it was busy driving, and being surrounded by a lot of people meant there were a lot of people to laugh at his (the boy who bullied her) mean jokes.”

For some students, bullying on buses might feel worse because buses are small, confined areas, says Dan Bacon, Moorhead Area Public School’s director of property services and transportation.

“It’s a closed container. People are in close proximity,” Bacon says. “You can’t walk on the other side of the hall on a school bus.”

Moorhead Area Public Schools, along with Fargo and West Fargo public schools, are working to lessen and eliminate bullying on buses, according to officials from each district.

The challenge in transportation, Bacon says, is safely driving a busload of students while remaining alert to their behavior.

Bacon is a former bus driver and says it’s difficult for drivers to see everything that’s going on while they’re concentrating on driving a large, heavy vehicle.

“School bus drivers can have 10 to 60 kids on board,” he says. “What’s happening outside the bus is far more important for the driver than what’s happening on the interior of the bus. If there’s bullying and stuff going on, that’s bad, but a crash is worse.”

When there’s a commotion on a bus, drivers see movement in a mirror. By the time they look up to see what the movement is, the first action or movement has passed, and they’re seeing the second movement, Bacon says.

“You don’t see what happened first, what instigated it,” he says. “We report what we see and then have somebody else investigate it to see if they can put things together.”

To try to curb any negative behavior, Moorhead is trying out cameras in three buses.

The district hopes to have cameras on all of its buses within the next six to 18 months, Bacon says.

“Behaviors improve when you know you’re being watched,” he says.

West Fargo has cameras on all of its school buses, says Louise Dardis, assistant superintendent of the West Fargo Public School District.

The cameras are one part of West Fargo’s efforts to reduce bullying on buses.

Other protocol is in place to prevent bullying behavior, Dardis says.

Some rules include: Only two to three students can sit in each seat. Students must sit facing forward. Older children sit in back, and younger children in front.

“We are making a concerted effort to make changes,” she says. “It has cut down on some of the behaviors we’ve dealt with in the past.”

Fargo has cameras on some of its buses, and is talking about installing cameras on all buses, says Fargo Public Schools’ business manager Broc Lietz.

In addition to cameras, Fargo Public Schools started employing bus monitors this school year to ride on certain buses to enforce appropriate behavior, he says.

Lietz says he knows bullying incidents do happen, but the reports from drivers that he’s seen typically involve students who don’t listen to the bus drivers, use bad language, stand up on the bus while it’s moving or leave a mess on the bus.

In Moorhead, the bus driver is usually the only adult on the bus, Bacon says.

If monitors were placed on Moorhead buses, Bacon isn’t convinced they’d make a difference since staff members can’t walk around while the bus is moving, and they can’t see the behavior of every student.

“It might put a damper on it, but it wouldn’t solve it, and it doubles our cost,” Bacon says. “If you’re doubling the cost without making a huge difference, I’m not sure that’s a good option. The cameras are not cheap, but they’re not as expensive as having another staff member on board. It’s an investigative tool. It sees more.”

When Moorhead Area Public Schools’ bus drivers witness bullying behavior, they are trained to report it to the appropriate school principal, he says.

Bus drivers can also intervene verbally and create seating charts if necessary, but telling the principal is the bus driver’s primary tool of intervention.

Moorhead’s Robert Asp Elementary School Principal Chris Triggs talks to bus drivers daily and says that serious bullying incidents are decreasing in frequency.

Fargo Public Schools employs its bus drivers through Valley Bus Co. Valley Bus trains the drivers to report bullying behavior to Lietz, who then works with the principal and driver to create a plan to halt the behavior.

The principal takes action with any students involved, Lietz says.

“The school bus is an extension of the school,” he says. “The discipline is really the responsibility of the principal.”

In West Fargo, drivers typically report to a bus or transportation officer who then acts on the bullying issue, Dardis says. The district also has a bullying hotline number posted on buses so children can report bullying, she says.

Anti-bullying efforts in school systems can be effective, but bullying extends beyond buses and schools, Bacon says.

“Bullying is an issue for humans ages 2 to 92,” he says. “It’s a human issue, and we try to address it in the schools by helping people learn better skills for dealing with other humans.”