Help Your Child Handle School Bus Bullies

Riding the familiar yellow school bus is an enjoyable rite of passage for most students, but for many it can be a place where bullying occurs unchecked. Here’s what you can do to help.

Singing countless rounds of “Wheels on the Bus” to your toddler probably painted a cheery image of the iconic, bright yellow school bus, exciting him about the day he’d be big enough to ride the bus to school himself.

Now, however, he’s older and regularly riding the bus to and from school—and dreading it each day, each way. That’s because what he has discovered is not so singsong happy. Chances are he’s either being bullied himself or witnessing other children being bullied—physically, emotionally, verbally, or socially—on a daily basis.

“School buses represent the number two place for bullying, second only to the playground,” says Quintina Strange, founder of Bully Buzz, a national bullying intervention and empowerment program.

Strange, a mother of two children who were bullied, created the Moreno Valley, Calif.-based program in 2010. Young adults, teens, and young children can submit bullying reports and request help confidentially, either online at or via a toll-free hotline at 855-BUZZTIP (855-289-9847).

Bullying on the bus shouldn’t come as a surprise. Think of your child’s bus like a school on wheels. According to the American Public Health Association, 440,000 school buses transport 24 million students to and from schools in the United States every year. Collectively, these buses travel 4.3 billion miles daily, with only one adult to get them to their destination safely.

The school bus is like a classroom where children learn positive and negative behavior, in small, steady chunks of time. “With school buses serving as the first and last school function for millions of schoolchildren every school day, our efforts to restore and maintain safe, calm environments on the school buses sets the stage for restoring everything in between,” says Nicholas Pizzo, director of organizational development for Student Transportation Inc., a school bus transportation company based in New Jersey.

Unlike school or an open playground where teachers are available to help when there’s a problem, there’s only one adult on the bus, the driver, who’s busy keeping her eyes on the road, making it difficult for her to monitor bullying, as well. Add to that the contained environment of a school bus ride, which can last 30 minutes or longer, and a child can feel trapped and helpless.

Ensuring a safe ride is a shared responsibility among the children, the school, and the bus company. What can—and should—your child do if she is being bullied or is a witness to bullying?

Tell someone. “Convey to kids the difference between ‘tattling,’ which is when someone is trying to get someone in trouble and ‘reporting,’ which is when someone is trying to get someone out of trouble,” advises Pizzo.

Let your child know his voice is being heard. Take time to really listen. “When your child says that she’s being bullied or that’s there’s bullying on the bus, listen,” Strange says. “We’re so busy being wrapped up watching TV, playing sports, paying the bills, making sure homework is done.” Your child has the right not to be harmed or touched and also has the right to help others who are being bullied, Strange says.

If bullying continues, speak up and do something about it. Lead by example. “We have to be responsible as adults,” Strange says. “Let your child know, ‘This is not how it goes.’ ” Take corrective action, whether it’s contacting the school administration, the parents of the bully, or the bully himself. “Bad habits, if not dealt with as a kid, carry into adulthood.”

Besides dealing directly with your child’s situation, there are other things you can do:

Communicate zero tolerance for bullying. This should be communicated clearly to your child—within the school and on the bus. To ensure that this message gets through to all students who ride their buses, Student Transportation Inc., visibly posts clear anti-bullying rules on their buses, with statements such as “Students on this bus do not tolerate bullying,” “We will not bully others,” and “We will tell bus drivers if someone is getting bullied.”

Have strength in numbers. There are usually more children on the bus desiring a peaceful ride home and not making trouble than there are bullies. Use this to your child’s advantage. “We need more kids willing to step in and say, ‘This is not right,’” Strange says. “If you love yourself and won’t allow yourself to be hurt, then you won’t allow another person to be hurt.”

Know that the situation can turn around. An innovative approach Strange uses on her Bully Buzz hotline is a program called My Brother’s Keeper. She puts former bullies to work on the hotline “so that they can hear the pain caused by bullying.” The former bullies also become peer consultants, now helping, not hurting, those being bullied. The intervention costs $30 and kids are enrolled in the 90-day program by a parent or guardian or are placed in the program through the court system, as retribution in the form of community service.

Why all the extra effort to help the bullies themselves? “These kids are our future,” Strange says. “Some of these kids need counseling but don’t [get it] because they let pride get in the way.”

Equally important is teaching our children to speak up when they witness bullying on the school bus; likewise, adults need to listen to the concerns of children who say they’re being bullied, speak up when they learn of bullying behavior, and contact school and bus officials. If all that fails, parents may need to deal directly with those involved—or contact their local law enforcement officials for assistance.

For more information on the Bully Buzz, visit or call the hotline toll-free at 855-BUZZTIP (855-289-9847).

What to do about school-bus bullying

Anticipating my six-year-old daughter, Esme’s entry into “big school” last year, I wondered how she’d handle all the transitions that were being thrown at her: a new school, a new teacher, new friends, even a new language, since she was starting French immersion. But my biggest anxiety was that she’d have to take the bus because of the distance to our area’s French immersion school.

My own memories of riding the bus to and from school are dominated by the gruff and growling driver of my route, Mr. Smith. Rumour was he’d hit a kid once. Hell, he’d kick you off the bus just for eating an orange (his alleged allergy). His reputation was such that no kid even tried to act up on Mr. Smith’s route — we were all too afraid! Maybe it wasn’t so relaxing, but at least he never lost any of us. Which is what happened in the first week of school on my daughter’s route. Twice. Both times the kids in question hadn’t even gotten on the afternoon bus and were sitting in the school office, but the driver had no clue a child wasn’t accounted for and it took panicked phone calls by upset parents to locate them.

It only takes a few conversations with parents who are experienced with the bus system to turn up many stories like these. At a time when parents are chastened for overprotecting their offspring to helicopter proportions, the school bus is a time of rare and almost complete freedom. For better or for worse. More than one parent I spoke to described the atmosphere of their child’s school bus by invoking The Lord of the Flies.

From a physical perspective, school buses are among the safest vehicles on the road. Only 0.3 percent of collisions in Canada involve school buses. And though many newbie parents are shocked to put their kid on one of the big 72-passenger buses without seat belts, that’s safer, too. The seats are designed to be “compartmentalized” and do less damage to children’s smaller bodies in the case of an accident than an ill-fitting seat belt. If only the kids would just sit quietly in their seats.

Miwa Yamada’s nine-year-old daughter, Kaiya, is no pushover. So two years ago, when an older kid on her bus started snatching her toys and snacks, taunting her with them and threatening to hit her, she did as her parents instructed and told the bully to back off. Loudly. Which worked for Kaiya, but made the bully move on to quieter kids. The school was made aware of the situation, meetings with the boy’s parents were had, warnings were given, but the torment continued. It took two years for him to be removed from the bus. Says Yamada, “I think the school was trying to be fair to all the parties. The last thing they want to do is kick a student off the bus.”

The Toronto District School Board’s Student Transportation Services department told me that the expense of having adult supervisors on the bus (other than the driver) is too costly, and that it’s up to the principal of each school to let students know how they should behave. Generally across Canada, the only kids who are given adult supervision on school buses are those with special needs.

Some schools have come up with another strategy — using older students as monitors to help maintain transportation peace. But this too can backfire.

Joanne Made’s 11-year-old daughter, June, was having a hard time with a classmate whom she was assigned to sit next to every day on the bus. The other girl would insist on deciding whether she wanted the window or aisle seat each day, and shove June to get her desired spot. While discussing how to handle what Made calls “the vacuum of power” of the bus, June told her about the student monitors that her school put in place. These older, responsible kids are given the job of controlling bad behaviour (or at least reporting it back to the school). “But in the absence of real power,” says Made, “other kids try to take over from the actual student monitor. They say, ‘Oh, I’m working with the bus supervisor.’ They actually abuse the system by pretending to write notes to give to the principal or teacher!”

Imagine if every commute to and from work involved an emotionally draining encounter like bullying, or simply the chaos that can reign on the school bus. Made says school mornings became increasingly stressful for her and her daughter, with June dreading the bus and Made having to drag her down the street to get to the pickup spot. And the end of the day was worse. “Every day for the last month of school, she cried when she got off the bus.” An impending switch of schools for June (for reasons unrelated to the bus stress) meant that Made didn’t feel the need to go to the school with her concerns, but she was relieved.

“I think the cause of the drama is that the kids are tired and frustrated from their day,” says Yamada. “And any tension is being played out between children that they’re already having problems with in class.”

None of the parents I spoke to have decided to give up on the bus, although some of their kids have. One mom said her two tween daughters would rather walk two-and-a-half kilometres to school than suffer the overcrowding and chaos. But many parents don’t have an option. Perhaps they have other kids going to other schools, making the transportation riddle more complicated, or live in suburban or rural areas where there simply aren’t any good alternatives to a long bus commute.

As for my daughter, she has had minor upsets on the bus, but they’re much like the ones she has at recess. This girl didn’t want to sit with me. That girl brings an iPad on the bus, why can’t I have one? But it’s also her favourite part of the day. Probably for all the reasons it gives parents anxiety – there’s no one in charge.

Beating the bus

How can parents help de-stress the bus for their kids? We asked London, Ont., parenting expert and psychotherapist Andrea Nair for some tips: