Examining the Florida Bus Case: Lessons For All Parents

As a psychologist and overall advocate for children with special needs, I am horrified and saddened by the behavior of James Willie Jones on a Seminole County, Florida school bus on September 3rd. However, I am equally appalled at the actions, or lack thereof, by the school bus driver and school district to protect Mr. Jones’ daughter. Over the past couple of days, I have been contemplating these points:

1) The alleged behavior of the children on the bus towards Mr. Jones’ daughter could be considered abusive.

2) It is common for those who have been abused to become abusers themselves. Mr. Jones, who experienced indirect abuse through what allegedly happened to his daughter, became abusive to the children on the bus.

3) The Individuals with Disabilities Education Act of 2004 (IDEA), a federal law, states that a child with a disability that affects their school functioning is eligible for certain modifications to their school day. One of these modifications may include a bus matron, who would assist the child on the bus, or be present in case of emergency. Cerebral Palsy, the condition that Mr. Jones’ daughter has, is defined as a group of disorders that can involve brain and nervous system functions such as movement, learning, hearing, seeing, and thinking.  While we don’t know the severity of her Cerebral Palsy, it is likely that she would have qualified for a bus matron, which may have prevented her from being a target of bullying (or abuse).

4) For the safety of all children on a school bus, school districts usually issue a Code of Conduct for riding the bus. This Code usually includes such rules as sitting in your seat, etc. There are typically consequences, usually implemented by the school district, when the Code of Conduct is broken. One solution to assist in improving behaviors on a bus, and ensure bus safety for all, is to place a bus matron on the bus, not for one individual, but for the entire bus.  This matron has the job of controlling behavior problems so that the bus driver can focus on transporting the children safely.

With all of this in mind, I pose these questions to encourage communication, forward thinking, and discussion. Possibly, there are lessons to learn from the Jones case that will assist us all in keeping our children safe on the school bus.

1) How did the school bus driver and/or matron fail the Jones child and the other children on the bus by failing to provide a safe commute to school?

The question is not posed to deflect from Mr. Jones’ behavior. I ask this question because if the alleged behaviors actually occurred, the bus ride was probably chaotic for all children on the bus, and possibly traumatizing. Further, it is difficult to imagine that the bus driver could fully concentrate on the road and safely transport children, when allegedly condoms were being thrown on the bus. Thus, the bus driver/matron had a responsibility to keep all the children safe by reporting this behavior to the appropriate authorities, who could then discipline the offenders. 

2) As a parent, how much do you know about what is happening on the school bus?

It is easy to believe that the school day begins when your child steps foot in the school building. But for many the school day “experience” begins when the child gets on the bus. Therefore, the bus driver and matron are a vital part of the school day. Statistics show that most cases of bullying or abuse happen either at recess, lunch or on the school bus. In this case, as in many, Mr. Jones’ daughter was beginning to develop school anxiety and possibly a school phobia (a condition that requires intensive treatment to correct), as a result of what happened on the school bus.

Lessons To Be Learned

Lesson #1: Ask your children specific questions about their day. “Who did you play with at recess?” “Who did you sit next to at lunch?” “What happened on the bus today?” When asking about your child’s day, target these three areas (recess, lunch, school bus).

Lesson # 2: A little bit of school anxiety can grow into a full-blown phobia if it is not handled properly. If your child is anxious about something happening at school, or on the bus, don’t take it lightly. Make sure to address it, though appropriately.

Mr. Jones did not handle the situation appropriately; however, there are reports that Mr. Jones attempted to contact the school district and he claims that they did not respond to him. The school district, on the other hand, reports that they did not receive calls from Mr. Jones.

Lesson # 3: If it is not written, it did not happen! It is always important to follow up with a phone call, a written letter or an e-mail. Document! Document! Document!

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