NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Student transportation personnel should be on the lookout for aggressive, anti-social behavior as well as depression, identity confusion, sudden loss of self-esteem and psychological problems in student riders as they all can be signs sexual abuse.
Apparent psychological problems such as cruelty to animals, bed-wetting and even a refusal to leave the bus at the afternoon stop can also be signs that something is amiss.
"Do you see these patterns on your bus?" asked Linda Bluth, Ed.D, the special initiatives education specialist in the Maryland Department of Education's Division of Special Education Early Intervention Services.
Bluth cited several cases of abuse perpetrated on students by their bus drivers, monitors or even other students as reported by the news media during her presentation "Are Your Eyes Open to Sexual Abuse?" at the 23rd Transporting Students with Disabilities and Preschoolers National Conference on Saturday. During her career, she said she has personally served as an expert witness on some 65 legal cases that involved sexual abuse of school bus riders.
She said the topic makes people feel uncomfortable but must be discussed. Special needs students are three times more susceptible to abuse, according to a March 2013 report from the VERA Institute of Justice. Bluth also said that about eight in 10 cases that occur on the bus are during regular route service. Several attendees discussed their own experiences involving both drivers who were found guilty or later exonerated, often due to the presence of on-board video cameras.
In 2011, she said the federal government found 61,472 children ages 1 through 21 reported sexual abuse. Advances in DNA evidence, increased media coverage as well as investigations by police and video evidence have helped to better protect students, especially those with special needs. But, she told the approximately 75 attendees of the early morning session, children still often try to hide the abuse, which has no universal definition. The crime can obviously include a wide range of inappropriate touching or, worse, assault but can also include "non-touching" behavior such as verbal comments, the showing of pictures of a sexual nature, "looking them up and down," asking children to expose themselves or the abuser exposing himself or herself to the child.
The victims often feel shamed and are targeted based on their sex – more girls are abused than boys – as well as their race and socioeconomic status. Children are also susceptible to being doubted. The 12- to 14- year age group is the one most often targeted by offenders followed by 9- to 11-year olds. Most abusers know the victim, they tend to be white males under the age of 30 and some use the school bus or other educational settings to select their victims.
Students can be abused on or off the bus and not just by an adult. Bluth highlighted cases involving other students on the bus. Oftentimes school bus drivers don't feel comfortable reporting suspicions that a student may be being abused, especially if he or she has no documentation a crime has occurred and only has a "gut feeling." She said transportation managers should encourage all their employees to speak up, and at that point management should involve a principal, school administrator, social worker or even law enforcement to investigate. They should also train staff to be especially watchful, for example, when students gather in a cluster at the back of the bus.
"Know your state laws for your obligation to report," she advised.