Q&A: U.S. Department of Education’s Kevin Jennings on School Bus Bullying
Tuesday, 01 February 2011 00:00

KevinJenningsAbout a month after he appeared at the NAPT Summit in Portland, Ore., to discuss the problem of school bus bullying, School Transportation News caught up with Kevin Jennings, the assistant deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Safe and Drug Free Schools to discuss school bus driver-specfic training necessary to combat the problem.

In November, Jennings told NAPT attendees that a recent survey by John Hopkins University and the National Education Association found that students who take the bus to and from school are about 18 percent more apt to report bullying than students who ride to school using another mode of transportation. And bus drivers are more likely to report bullying incidents than other school personnel. But do school bus drivers have the necessary training and support from administrations to do something about it?

How did you become such an advocate against school bullying?

My interest in this issue began back when I was in the second grade when busing came to where I grew up in North Carolina as a way of integrating schools. I spent a lot of my childhood on a school bus, usually an hour each way, and quite honestly that was often a very unpleasant experience where I got bullied and had a very difficult time. So actually I had a very long-standing interest in this issue. In terms of my interest in this job shortly after I was appointed there was an incident in Belleville, Ill., which is a suburb of St. Louis, where a young man was very viciously bullied on a bus and it was captured on video and ended up on the Internet and on Fox News and other places. So when the school bus industry approached me it was great because it was something I cared very much about, and I was very excited to connect with them.

And this meeting lead to the decision for the DOE to survey bullying on school buses?

The thinking on this has involved since that meeting. First of all, as you saw at the event we did in Portland [at the NAPT Summit in November], as it turned out [the National Education Agency] had just done a major study on bullying and school support personnel including bus drivers. So it seemed they had already gathered a lot of the information we were interested in. I think the direction we’re moving in now is developing training materials because what we heard in Portland and what we’ve heard repeatedly is that bus drivers, and this is also supported by the NEA study that I cited at the event, bus drivers want to do something about this. But they’re not receiving the training they need. So I think my latest conversation with Mike Martin and NAPT was really more about what can the federal government do to develop some training materials to help bus drivers? Because the NEA study as well as just the work experience of some of the people in the industry I think has told us what we need to know, which is that bus drivers see bullying, they want to do something about it and they’re not being given the support and tools they need to do so. So why do a study when you already know the answer? So let’s move on to solving the problem.

Is there specific training or thoughts that DOE has for bus drivers?

Quite honestly no. This is just a shift in what we were thinking of doing. That occurred just in the last month after hearing about the NEA study and appearing at NAPT. What we’re talking about now is doing some training for drivers about how they can model behavior effectively on the bus and interrupt troubling behavior like bullying not just bullying but any troubling behavior. Beyond that I’m not going to get into any specifics. I just know the general focus and purpose of the training.

Is this going to be a federally-funded program?

Exactly. This is all really, really early, but the way this generally works is we would contract with a third-party who has the expertise in the area to develop the materials.

Is this program going to be specifically for school bus drivers?

This is for bus drivers, and the idea is we would develop training free of charge for any district that is interested in training its drivers.

Is the school bus an extension of the classroom?

Absolutely. I’ve stolen this line from somebody in Portland: The bus drivers are the first person kids see in the school day and the last person they see in the school day. I think we need to understand that what happens on buses is integral part of the school experience. That if kids have positive experiences on buses, that’s going to make them more likely to want to come to school and be able learn at school. If they have negative experiences, it’s going to have an opposite effect. I think we need to start viewing the bus ride as part of the school day, and I frankly don’t think a lot of schools do. And I think that’s a huge mistake. Kids often spend more time in the bus every day then they are in English or math. So absolutely we need to be paying attention to this.

What does a stable travel from home to school and back do for a kid’s school day?

I’m in Minnesota right now, and I spoke with Native American Indian kids last night. They talked to me about the issues with school transportation here. As you know it gets very cold in the winter. If kids cannot access transportation they just choose not to go to school. So it’s a real problem.

With school choice, what about inner city kids who need to get to higher-performing schools and must rely on school buses to get across town?

And get across town safely. In some cases it may not be safe for them to walk. We know in Chicago for instance that sometimes kids getting to school, they walk from their home to school, cross into rival gang territory, and that can literally be fatal. So it may be the bus is the only way they can get there. Here in Minneapolis, apparently the district has a rule that if you live within two miles of school you need to walk. That may look good on paper until it’s 10 below out, which it often is here in the winter. And a two mile walk for a young child can be 45 minutes to an hour. So I really think School districts must look closely at their transportation policy and figure out if transportation is actually facilitating getting to schools or is it creating barriers to kids getting to school.

What about increased partnerships with Safe Routes to School?

Safe Routes to School is an important program, but it really has a different focus. It’s really about ensuring that kids can walk to school safely. That’s a very, very important thing. But it’s a different focus than the work we’re trying to do, which is to make sure kids are safe while they’re on buses and that they can get a safe and reliable ride to school, which is really critical. Reliable and safe is crucial because, if it’s not reliable and its not safe, then they’re not likely to use it. If they don’t use it, they don’t come to school. And if they don’t come to school, they don’t learn.

Does anything jump out to you with regard to bullying being worse in school buses than elsewhere?

There isn’t a lot of data to be really honest with you. The CDC data that I presented at the [NAPT Summit] conference is probably the best we’ve got. And it does seem to indicate that [bullied] kids who take buses are more likely to be afraid to go to school because they’re afraid something will happen to them on the way there than kids who, for example, ride to school in cars. So I think there clearly is an issue. And anecdotally, when you ask bus drivers, they’ll say, “Yeah, I see it.”

Can you expand on suggested programs or transportation’s possible interaction with students? Is this is best done at the local level or is the U.S. Department of Education preparing formal direction?

One program I’ve become familiar with is the one up in Albany (N.Y.). What they do is think about the school bus as a community just like the classroom or the schools as a community, and they take active efforts to build a sense of positive community among the kids so that it’s not just you get on the bus and ride to school. That to me is an example of the type of thing you need to start thinking about, because if you start to thinking about the bus as an extension of school then that will totally change the way you approach the bus ride. Right now the bus ride in a lot of the school districts is just how you get to school. There’s no thought being given to how we want kids to behave on buses, how we want them to interact with each other, how can we use this time. I think the general approach is what we call a school climate approach where you’re thinking about what kind of climate is being created on the buses. There are real basic things that most bus drivers know and do already: greeting each kid by name as they get on and off; stopping a kid as they’re getting off if you notice that they seem sad or you were troubled by something you saw them doing and say, ‘Hey Johnny what’s going on?’ A lot of this is not really rocket science. One thing districts need to do is be clear that they want school bus drivers to do that. I think most bus drivers, my brother in law is a bus driver, are people who actually chose this profession because they really like kids. They basically need a little training and a lot of support from districts. Districts don’t treat them with the level of respect they should they don’t treat them as an integral part of the school community. I think bus drivers know what they need to do, they just need permission to do it.

What about bullying intervention? Many school district and school bus company policies dictate that a driver is not get involved in a student fight, and this be also be construed as bullying. Does Safe and Drug Free Schools advocate a certain type of intervention? Would this mean school transportation departments need to rethink their policies?

Obviously we don’t want bus drivers to put themselves physically at risk. I can’t speak to the full details of Belleville because I wasn’t there, but I think usually that by the time something escalates to a fight there have been warning signs along the way. Very rarely is everything fine and then suddenly there’s a fight. Usually there’s name calling or hostility or something that precedes it. So one thing we need drivers to do is to feel that they can intervene early when they see troubling behavior before it escalates to the really disturbing stuff like Belleville. The key here is early intervention. Assigned seating, I think that’s a great idea. I think districts that can afford it can use monitors. A relationship between the bus driver and the parent: does the bus driver have every parent’s phone number? I bet in most districts they don’t. Does the parent have the bus driver’s number? The more you can get the adults communicating and working together the better. Do the teachers know the names of the bus driver? My experience is just that bus drivers are not in any way related to the school community. Some of it is simply integrating drivers better in the fabric of the school community.

It sounds like what you are trying to do is something similar to what Secretary Arne Duncan did as the superintendant of Chicago Public School where you’re going to the kids and letting them dictate where safety funds go?

That’s our new Safe and Supportive Schools Grants. What we do is utilize survey of students, their families and school staff to figure out where the problems are in school communities and give the grant money to the schools that have the biggest problems and require they be spent on the areas that the kids have said are the problem. Eleven states (Arizona, California, Iowa, Kansas, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, South Carolina, Tennessee, West Virginia, and Wisconsin) have gotten these grants. We’ve asked Congress for a 500 percent increase (from $38 million in FY 2010 … up to a requested $160 million) for funding for this program in 2011. The Ed budget is still up in the air so we don’t know what will happen but we’re hopeful. I think that one of the keys to improving the environment in schools is to start asking people in the schools what’s actually going on. Restaurants ask their customers what their experience is like. I think we need to start asking people in schools, ‘Hey, what’s it like being here?’ Transportation has to be a part of that conversation.