What can be done about School Bus Bullies

What can be done about school bus bullies?Understanding the School Bus Bullies

and how to prevent their recurrence

Like almost everyone, I was horrified by the video of a school bus monitor in NY enduring 10 plus minutes of harassment. However, unlike everyone else, I was actually watching it with a technical eye. You see, I am the author of a book called The Bully Vaccine, which takes an operant conditioning approach to ending bullying.  The contents of the video show two things.  One, what not to do when bullied. And two, school districts need to do a much better job of training their employees on how to handle problems.


Please realize I am not blaming Ms. Klein for what happened. She showed a tremendous amount of restraint in the face of some truly horrid behavior. I am blaming her employers for putting her in that position in the first place without the training or support she needed to do her job properly.

The problem is if we are going to get bullying to stop, we need to be honest about how and why it occurs and what can realistically be done to get it to stop. This means we need to review how her behavior, however admirable, encouraged the bullying to escalate and why. If we don’t do this, we won’t learn how to prevent this from happening in the future. In other words, this post is going to be blunt. Again, I am not blaming her for not knowing this information. It is not something she or anyone else can be expected to know without proper training which is why I think the school district that hired her failed her by not providing her with the training she needed.

First things first. What she did wrong.

When you watch the video, you can see she tried to ignore them, then engages with them, then ignores them, engages with them and this goes back and forth for the entire ten minute clip. The ignore and then engage and repeat behavior is a classic example of what is known as variable reinforcement. Sometimes she responds, sometimes she doesn’t. The problem with variably reinforcing a bully is that it makes the bullying worse and this is exactly what we see during the ten minute video. The boys go from calling her fat to threatening to cut her belly open with a knife and leaving flaming bags of poo on her doorstep. If all she did was ignore them and resist the urge to speak to them entirely, they would probably have gotten bored and left her alone. Consistent compassionate non-reinforcement is the only way to get the behavior to stop. Variable responses make it worse. (Again there are lots of reasons why this happens, but suffice it to say – this has been studied and it is a well-established principle of behavioral modification).

The second issue this clip raises is that there is no way this was the first time those kids harassed her. Those kids clearly felt empowered to act this way, which means, they had done this sort of thing before and gotten away with it. What makes this video particularly egregious is it was Ms. Klein’s job as school bus monitor to prevent bullying from occurring. Whatever the policies on the bus were, they weren’t being enforced, and again, it was her job to enforce them. My guess, and keep in mind it is a guess, is that those kids (who she called bad apples and jerks), were probably sitting near her in the first place so that she could keep an eye on them and prevent them from harassing their fellow students. So far so good. The problem is that their only target became her and she didn’t do anything constructive to get them to stop. Again, not blaming her – her employer should have trained her how to handle what everyone knows is a very common problem on school buses!

There are two main reasons why this incident occurred. First, she clearly did not know how to get them to stop – again, that’s a training issue. And two, if she had asked for help, she would have to admit to her bosses that she didn’t know how to do her job properly. There aren’t many employees willing to admit that sort of thing to their bosses. Again, the school district who hired her failed her.

So what is the solution?

Train the bus drivers and bus monitors on how to handle bullying. What to do, what not to do. Give them proper training and don’t just assume because they are an adult, they can handle an unruly or rude child. People charged with enforcing the rules on a school bus need to know how to de-escalate a problem and in most cases, they don’t. Their instinct on how to behave, unfortunately, tends to cause things to escalate.  Finally, the school bus company or school district must be committed to backing up their employees. This isn’t about taking sides; it is part of what needs to be done to keep kids safe. Employees should feel comfortable going to their bosses for help when they have a problem they can’t solve themselves. It is the responsibility of management to make sure they are viewed as a resource by their employees and not merely as bosses who will fire them if they have a problem.

My idea for what would have fixed this is to make sure the kids on the bus know what the rules are and that if there is a problem or infraction; it will be reported, every time. Then, make sure the monitor has a clip board with a list of all the students. Any infraction of the rules (foul language, threats, violence) and that child gets a hash mark next to their name. This is turned in every evening and they are officially reported and get a consequence. The consequence doesn’t have to be major. It could be as simple as notifying their parents. I know my school district has a policy that is fair. All that has to be done is for it to be enforced. Do this consistently every day and you will have a very well behaved bus.

You don’t have to be rude to the children. You don’t have to be mean. You just have to enforce the rules consistently and unemotionally. Again, the problem that causes these things to escalate is when you have variable reinforcement. If you ignore minor infractions some of the time or all of the time, you embolden children to continue breaking the rules until they find out exactly where the line of enforcement is. And that usually requires the behavior to be egregious, like it was on this bus. Leniency, while motivated by compassion, actually encourages bad behavior because it creates a variable reinforcement environment. Ms. Klein was being lenient and it not only didn’t work, it made things bad for her and for the kids she was tasked with keeping safe.

Another part of the problem is in labeling kids problems or bad eggs. It is possible Ms. Klein made no effort to control the behavior of these kids because she might not have thought it would have done any good. In an interview, she said two were jerks and two were rotten apples. This assumes they are not capable of behaving properly. And in her experience on the bus, I can see why she would think that. But again, that’s a function of her not knowing what can be done to make those kids behave better or how to do it. She wasn’t trained properly for her job!

This isn’t to say that there aren’t some kids that are just bad to the bone. But most children, including these particular kids, are trainable and therefore savable. (See other essay on that topic here). Our job as adults is to help train them how to behave properly. By properly training the adults who are tasked with caring for them, we can better respond to and train our kids how to behave properly themselves.

What should training include?

  • The principles of operant conditioning.
  • The impact of variable and consistent reinforcement in shaping behavior.
  • Information on blow outs so that those tasked with undertaking this know what to expect
  • Practice and role play on how to handle various difficult and dangerous situations.

Additionally, school districts need to have policies in place to support their employees so that if they are dealing with a difficult situation that they are having trouble controlling on their own, they can receive the additional help and support they need. Extinguishing a behavior, such as bullying, is one of the hardest things we can ever do. It often takes a group effort to strategize tactics that may need to be changed as the process moves forward as it isn’t unusual for new bad behaviors to crop up in place of the one that was being extinguished.

Teachers and bus drivers and aides, need to have the support they need in this effort. They need to be able to ask questions and get a fresh perspective on what to try if what they are doing isn’t working. The adults involved need to have a united integrated approach to the problem. Otherwise, there will be variable reinforcement and instead of getting the problem to stop, it will escalate. And most importantly, we need to treat the offending kids with compassion and with an expectation that they are capable of learning how to behave properly if just given a chance and the proper instruction.

For more information – check out my book: The Bully Vaccine (http://thebullyvaccine.com) And yes, I am available for training and consulting on these matters.