DennisBeaverAugust 24, 2013 • By Dennis Beaver

Just what should a school bus driver do when a fight breaks out on the bus? In July of this year, while three 15-year-old students were viciously assaulting a 13-year-old boy — who wound up with a broken arm, two black eyes and other injuries — a 63-year-old Florida bus driver stood idly by, doing nothing except calling his dispatcher.

The failure of the driver to intervene — to do something — was seen by the local chief of police as the basis for criminal prosecution.

Viewing the bus video of the incident just makes you sick — especially seeing the driver, close enough to yank at least one of the kids off of the victim — just standing there. Worse yet, there may have been an opportunity to have prevented the assault, as You and the Law learned from a Florida-based school bus safety expert, Dr. Nancy Blackwelder.

Bus drivers have a duty to protect the children 

“School bus drivers have a legal duty to protect the kids on their bus. It is the same duty — the same high standard — that teachers have in class. It is a relationship built on trust that the bus driver will act in the best interests of the child,” she notes.

“But this does not mean that our bus drivers should be seen as Rambos.”

“I tell bus drivers that when a fight breaks out on their bus, your first obligation is not to the combatants. It is to the safety of yourself and the other students who are not in the fight.

“Often a driver can prevent the fight by properly responding to language that usually precedes combat, such as name calling and taunting. Active listening gives the driver a chance to verbally intervene by shouting something like, ‘Cut it out or I’m reporting all of you.’ If that fails, be ready to deal with a fight.”

The fight has broken out; use verbal intervention

When actual fighting takes place, Blackwelder recommends that drivers “always use the tools of verbal intervention,” and then follow these steps when actual fighting takes place:

1) Drivers must know where they may be able to pull over and the location of other schools, hospitals, fire stations and police departments. While looking for a safe place to stop, shout “Stop fighting!”

2) Call dispatch, explain where you are and that you need help.

3) When you have stopped, put the bus in park, turn off the ignition, take the keys and unlatch your safety belt. Never get out of your seat and leave the bus running.

4) Out of your seat, you can now face the kids — as before you were looking at them in a mirror, which is not very intimidating. At this point, once again, use verbal intervention: ‘”Stop fighting!” Don’t launch yourself between kids, because then you are going to get hurt. Physical intervention is your absolute last step.

5) Speak to each of them individually and say, “Sit down! Stop fighting right now!” You are giving the kids direction and, if you know their names, call them by name. “Johnny, sit down right now or you will be in big trouble!”

6) Often there is a lull in the fighting. At that point, say, “I have called the police. Do you want this to get any worse?” This often works as a trigger to stop the fight.

7) In a fight, bodily functions change: Adrenaline surges. Heart rate and blood pressure goes up. You get tunnel vision; hearing is affected, so at this stage, they may simply not hear you. Therefore, you must get up close and really shout at them, “Stop fighting right now!”

8) If one of the kids gives you the impression that they heard you, for example, turns to look at you — and, again, especially if you know their names — call them by name: “Johnny, right now, sit down! Or you’re going to really be in much worse trouble if this continues.” You may be able to intimidate them this way.

Do what a prudent adult would do

“If you have done all of those things,” said Blackwelder, “and feel the kid is in danger of being horribly injured, then do what a prudent adult would do.

“But what you can do is limited by your own experience, physical size, training and ability. You cannot make a blanket school policy against physical intervention.

“For a school district to say that your job is to never physically intervene is bad policy. While we cannot order our 5-foot, 2-inch, 110-pound, 55-year-old lady driver to take on that football player, but if she does, she should not be punished for acting heroically,” Blackwelder concluded.

Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.