Communities Put Discipline in the Driver's Seat

Article excerpt

When Robert Calcavechia was hired to drive a school bus in New York eight years ago, he was handed the keys and told simply to drive to the nearest police station if the kids gave him trouble.

Today, he's getting a little more help. His school in Brodheadsville, Penn., offers yearly training in handling discipline problems. He and fellow drivers practice suggested techniques by acting out situations.

Mr. Calcavechia says the training represents a "180-degree change," one which helps him deal with the fistfights and smoking that have cropped up with his school-aged clients. Ask many administrators and drivers across the United States to name the key challenge in the $10-billion-a-year job of transporting children to school, and they'll agree: law and order. The issue can be the make-or-break point in keeping drivers on the job. It can also determine a child's attitude toward school. As a result, more districts are trying a variety of techniques to help drivers clamp down on everything from arms out the window to bullying: * "Passenger management." Bus drivers for Durham Student Transportation, which operates in Texas, California, Oregon, and Washington, learn how to build rapport with students and defuse anger. Drivers refresh their skills with a 10-hour session each year. * Electronic monitors. By 1996, more than 79 percent of school districts nationwide were using video surveillance on at least some buses, according to School Bus Fleet, an industry publication. * Clear-cut explanations of the consequences for offenses. In Boston, a new program resulted in banning 86 children from the bus last year. In Jefferson County, Ala., a similar program has greatly improved bus behavior over five years, says Kevin Walsh, a school-board member. To Mr. Walsh, also an associate professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, it pays to train drivers and communicate more clearly with students. Driving a bus is "the most difficult job you can have," he says. "Most drivers have little education and training other than how to drive a bus. They are driving 60 kids with their backs turned to them. We train teachers. They face 25 kids and still have trouble." According to a 1996 survey by School Bus Fleet, student misbehavior was the main stumbling block to driver retention. Low wages ranked second. Many bus drivers welcome the move toward stricter discipline. "Kids aren't as nice as they used to be," complains Wayne Barnes, who has driven in Wilks County, N.C., for 13 years. Parents and administrators should take bus behavior seriously, he says. …