Being bullied is distressing for any child, but the added element of a confined space makes it more terrifying. Experts shed light on school-bus bullying and advice what can be done to tackle it.
One afternoon, Melissa’s eight-year old son Michael came home from school with a bruised cheek. When she questioned him, he said he fell down, but later admitted being punched by another boy on the school bus. On a separate occasion, Michael said he’d seen a boy pointing the spiked end of a drawing compass at another boy’s throat while riding the bus home.
A 2008 study by the Singapore Children’s Society found that about one in five primary school students was a victim of bullying. The same study revealed that slightly more boys than girls were bullied in primary school, and the bullies were largely male. Esther Ng, founder of the Coalition Against Bullying for Children and Youth (CABCY) and psychotherapist with Myspace Psychotherapy Services, says that CABCY does receive reports of school-bus bullying. “While we can’t say that school-bus bullying is more common now, we can certainly say that it has been happening and will continue to happen. The school bus is a ‘transition’ area with little or no supervision from adults since the driver’s eyes are on the road. Plus, a ride typically lasts up to 30 minutes or longer, it’s within a small space, and there’s a captive audience.” Pamela See, educational and developmental psychologist with Th!nk Psychological Services, notes that “it is easier to bully on a moving bus as the child cannot get out and walk away from the situation”.
Forms of Bullying
Understanding the dynamics of bullying is a key step in helping your child deal with being bullied on the school bus. According to Daniel Koh, psychologist with Insights Mind Centre, school-bus bullying can manifest in several forms: physical, verbal, emotional or a combination of all three. “When the frequency, intensity and emotional or physical pain increases to the point where it causes great distress in the child, the child may feel fearful or anxious about the situation and the person,” explains Daniel.
Any obvious aggressive behavior that is intentional, persistent and hurtful can be considered bullying. Bullies might force kids to give up their lunch money, destroy their belongings, instigate name-calling, or coerce them into shifting seats. Within the confined space of the school bus, other students may easily become victims themselves, or succumb to peer pressure and participate in the bullying. “It isn’t always easy to spot a bully – the most unexpected kids can become bullies, including top students. Girls tend to be more vicious with their words, while boys give it to you with a kick or punch,” says Esther. For the victims, the fear often follows into the classroom. If they start the day on the receiving end of aggression, it may cause them to dread going to school, leading to absenteeism, dropping grades and poor concentration in class. “Research has shown that those who were bullied during their schooldays had lower self-esteem, weaker self-confidence, and were more likely to be depressed than those who were not,” says Jessie Ooh, consultant paediatric psychologist with Cognitive Health Consultancy International.
Creating a Bully Proof Bus
Many victims of bullying suffer in silence, with parents becoming aware only when much of the damage is already done. “The situation is often downplayed by schools and bus companies as childish whingeing, oversensitivity, quarrelling or horseplay. Victims don’t tell parents or other adults they are being bullied because they don’t have the confidence that the problem will be solved,” says Esther. At CABCY, Esther has received numerous e-mails and phone calls from desperate parents who feel that schools and bus companies are not doing enough to curb the problem. “Parents are calling us because they’ve already informed the parties involved and are clueless on what to do next,” she adds. Melissa agrees. “When I reported my son’s bully to the school, the perpetrator was suspended from recess for three days – a punishment hardly commensurate with the severity of the situation. The teachers, school counsellors and school-bus drivers seem to be sweeping this issue under the carpet,” she bemoans.
Here’s what to do if your child is a victim of school-bus bullying:
Report the incident to the school and the bus company.
When meeting at the school, bring any evidence of the bullying, like a doctor’s note stating your child’s injuries and photos of the injuries. Take notes during the meeting, and if the school promises to take action, get everything in writing to ensure the school makes good on its word. “School-bus companies need to exercise due diligence in ensuring the safety of their young passengers, and that includes making sure they aren’t taunted or beaten up on the bus,” says Esther. They should have guidelines on how to handle various types of bullying, such as banning the perpetrator from riding the bus for a set period. Having a bus attendant on board to manage the kids would also help.
Help your child deal with what happened.
Encourage him to confide in you and tell him that no one deserves to be a target of bullying. Teach him how to be more assertive – by being more confident, defusing a tense situation with humour, ignoring the bully or telling the bully to stop in a firm voice. “If your child is concerned about being bullied, he can request to sit as close to the front as possible or sit on the right-hand side of the bus, which puts him in direct view of the driver,” suggests Jessie.
Talk to the bully’s parents.
This could be tricky, as it’s a natural reaction for any parent to go on the defensive when their precious princess or prince is accused of picking on other kids. But Donna, whose nine-year-old daughter was part of a group that bullied an unpopular girl who often made disparaging remarks about other students, says she was quick to apologise when the other girl’s mother spoke to her. “You have to scold your child in front of the other parent first – you can’t start out blaming the other kid. The other parent will naturally mirror your actions and scold her own child.” If you don’t trust yourself to be calm and non-confrontational, it’s best to restrict your dealings to the school, the bus company, and if necessary, the authorities.
Make a police report.
With the implementation of the Protection from Harassment Act in March 2014, the long arm of the law now stretches to bullying among children. “In the past, parents only had the option of reporting bullying to the school. But now, if the school can’t handle it, parents can go to the police and file for a personal protection order. Of course, they have to prove that the bullying did occur,” says Esther. If the bus has a CCTV installed, the video may help to shed light on what happened.
Bus Bullying Red Alert
Is your child being bullied on the school bus? If you notice him or her exhibiting these warning signs, it’s time to get more involved.
- Reluctance to go to school.
- Wants to take a different mode of transport to and from school, or conveniently misses the school bus.
- Has a sudden drop in grades.
- Seems happy on weekends, but suddenly complains of feeling sick on Sunday night or Monday morning.
- Suffers from fatigue, and has nightmares or insomnia.
- Comes home with torn or messy clothing, and unexplained bruises, injuries, cuts and scratches.
- Has extreme mood swings and cries easily.
- Often asks for extra allowance; possessions are frequently “lost” or damaged without reason.
- Becomes rebellious, unreasonable and aggressive
- Becomes violent towards siblings, parents or friends.
By Justina Tan, Simply Her, August 2014