Harassment complaint prompts bus behavior policy

School board expected to vote Jan. 23 on bus behavior policy

By: Kip Berman
   HIGHTSTOWN — After hearing an eighth-grade girl’s troubling account of harassment, intimidation and abuse on a public school bus, the East Windsor Regional school board plans to vote on a comprehensive bus behavior policy at its next meeting, Jan. 23.
   "A kid threw a pencil and it hit me a quarter of an inch away from my eye. I had to go to the hospital," the student told the board at Monday’s meeting. "I’m scared to go on the bus. … A kid brought a target sheet for a gun with a bullet hole in it. I’ve been threatened and intimidated. … I don’t want to get hurt; I don’t want anyone to get hurt."
   The girl also expressed fear for the safety of her younger sister, who she said also has been harassed on the same bus — especially as the younger girl will have to ride by herself next year.Superintendent Ron Bolandi’s tone was resolute in response to her story, saying that the district will take immediate steps to treat delinquent behavior on the school bus with the same severity that it would be treated in the classroom.
   "You wouldn’t let a kid throw a pencil or abuse a teacher in the classroom. It’s our job to protect this courageous young lady and not let her become a victim," said the superintendent.
   "We really need to put some teeth into our bus policy," he added. "Everyone needs to understand that the bus needs to be an extension of the classroom."
   But he also noted that, while the incidents on the particular bus were severe and are being treated with the utmost seriousness, the problem is not widespread.
   "Of the 85 buses in our school district, 84 of them don’t have any problems," Mr. Bolandi said later by phone.
   He also said the students who had participated in the incidents had been disciplined, a letter had gone home to parents of students on the bus, and one of the district’s bus aides — traditionally employed to assist disabled students — has been traveling on the bus ever since the alleged incidents occurred to ensure safety.
   The student’s mother said Wednesday that she was pleased by the district’s response this week and proud of her daughter for bringing the matter directly to the school board.
   Board of Education President Ricardo Perez said Monday night that the board cannot address individual personnel or behavioral issues in open session, but he did tell the victim that her concerns were being taken seriously and that the board will soon put a plan in action.
   Board member Jim Hauck, who characterized the student’s account as "very upsetting," welcomed the decision to take timely action to develop a comprehensive bus behavior policy, while encouraging the girl’s father, who also attended the meeting, to take legal recourse against the alleged bullies.
   The student’s father said the bullying is not just limited to the bus; he and his daughter, he said, have been harassed in their neighborhood.
   "We did report these incidents to the police," he said. "These children are capable of doing anything. They live in our neighborhood and they make me nervous."
   Though he exempted Mr. Bolandi from his criticism, the father said he felt the incidents had not been taken seriously enough by the district before Monday.
   Board member Suzann Fallon, who said the student’s report represented one of the most serious concerns the board has heard, echoed Mr. Bolandi and Mr. Hauck’s desire to vote on a new policy at the next board meeting.
   However, board member Alice Weisman, suggested a new policy might not be needed, if the current policy could be better enforced.
   "My kids have been on buses since kindergarten, and there’s a packet (I receive each year) that says, ‘If you don’t follow these rules, you’ll lose your privilege to ride the bus,’" she said.
   Mr. Bolandi explained that the district would shore up existing policy and ensuring its enforcement is consistent, rather than creating an entirely new policy.
   He indicated he is optimistic that once the policy is enacted and consistently enforced, students’ safety will improve. He added that a bus driver’s first responsibility is to drive and that any distractions prevent the driver from giving his or her undivided attention to the road.
   The revised policy will be drafted by Director of Transportation Pat Bye with the assistance of Mr. Bolandi and other administrators.