This story first appeared in the Wiltshire Gazette & Herald in April 2014.
In December 2006, parents Paul and Caroline Vodden experienced a devastating and life-changing event – their 11-year-old son Ben committed suicide.
What could have caused a bright young boy, in his first year of secondary school with his future ahead of him, to hang himself?
It became very clear that his death was the result of one thing – persistent and cruel bullying on the school bus.
I’ve just met Ben’s father Paul Vodden. He was in Wiltshire at the first Busk Road Transport Safety Conference held at the headquarters of fleet management specialist Arval in Swindon.
Paul and Caroline were launching The Vodden Report – an online survey to assess bullying on dedicated school buses.
They secured funding to carry out the survey of children last year from The Diana Award and their efforts have been supported by organisations including 4Children, BullyingUK and Kidscape.
Ben tried to deal with the bullying
Hearing this family’s story literally stunned the audience into silence. Paul described the kind of bullying his son was experiencing.
“Had it just been Ben’s peers he may well have coped with the bullying but the bus driver decided to join in and, in our view, this took the situation to another level.
“Most of what he said I cannot repeat but it included comments such as ‘you’re a d***head’ and ‘ask your parents to get you a friend for Christmas as you’re a billy-no-mates’.
“Here was an adult taking part in his denigration. This adult should have been someone to look up to, not someone who helped persecute him.”
At Ben’s inquest in West Sussex an open verdict was recorded. The bus driver denied disliking Ben but admitted making such statements to him, saying they were ‘banter’.
It was also claimed the school had treated each complaint as ‘isolated’ and did not treat the incidents as linked so the picture of a campaign of bullying didn’t emerge. The bus company concerned said its driver couldn’t possibly have behaved in that way.
“Our family was let down by everybody at every turn,” Paul said. “The council, the school and the bus company.”
Management at the school has now changed and, Paul said, matters had apparently improved.
Since that time Ben and Caroline have been vocal about issues relating to bullying and want to raise awareness of the hidden ‘hot spot’ of bullying – the school bus journey.
It’s interesting to consider in the majority of cases – if a school trip is arranged there has to be a ratio of adults to children on board. However on the school bus, no such rules apply. Often the only adult is the bus driver whose main job is to drive safely from A to B.
“The situation on the dedicated school bus is, by its nature, potentially problematic as far as bullying is concerned. There is no formal supervision and virtually no opportunity of avoiding conflict situations,” Paul said.
When the Vodden survey was completed, 541 responses from children were received and 268 talked of bullying on the school bus.
Paul said: “This survey should be seen as a realistic snapshot of what is happening on dedicated school buses and a general indication of the effects and consequences of bullying in general.”
Those children who took part were asked what they felt like doing when they were being bullied:
*38 per cent said hide away.
*17 per cent said fight back.
*16 per cent said tell someone.
*9 per cent considered suicide
*8 per cent campaigned against bullying.
When asked how long bullying had been going on, 77 children said it had been more than a year.
When they were asked ‘was the driver aware that the bullying was taking place?’ the results were:
*43 children said yes.
*44 children said no.
*155 children gave no response to the question.
*ten children said they would prefer not to say.
In conclusion the Vodden Report says that bullying on the school bus is a significant problem and that children in Year 7 are particularly at risk. Forty per cent of children who took part in the survey, said bullying had started in that school year.
Paul said: “Therefore the time when children are moving from Year 6 in primary school to Year 7 in secondary school should be recognized as a time of particular vulnerability.”
It also concludes that the role of the school bus driver is key.
“It is clear that the role of the driver is significant,” the report says. “Only four were recorded as taking action to alleviate the bullying, 42 were reported as taking no action even when many of them were reported as knowing what was going on and a very worrying 17 were reported as joining in.”
“It is pertinent to ask whether the driver of a bus can reasonably and safely be expected to monitor children’s behavior whilst giving full attention to the serious undertaking of driving. But if not the driver, then where is the ‘responsible adult’ who can intervene to safeguard children from bullying during their daily journey to and from school?”
Paul and Caroline’s MP, Annette Brooke recently brought up these issues in Parliament.
She said bullying on school buses includes both verbal and physical abuse such as spitting, punching, slapping and pushing.
“In what other situation are as many as 50 or more children forcibly restricted in a confined space for up to an hour, with a single, untrained adult present, who is undertaking a separate task that requires their full attention?”
Education minister Lis Truss praised the report saying it was up to local authorities, schools, bus companies and parents to take action together. She said:
“When contracting to provide school transport, local authorities can instruct companies to include anti-bullying procedures as part of their tenders. I strongly urge them to do so.
“We acknowledge that tackling bullying outside school is challenging, but we have been clear that teachers have the power to discipline pupils for poor behaviour, including bullying outside the school gates. Where bullying outside school is reported to school staff, it should be investigated and acted upon.
“If the misbehaviour could be criminal or poses a serious threat to a child or another member of the public, the police should be informed.”
The Vodden Report makes a number of recommendations. These include:
- School bus drivers being given specialist training in safeguarding children.
- A trained adult or chaperone should be present on every school bus.
- Policies should be introduced making it clear who is responsible for dealing with bullying on the school bus.
Do you ever wonder how many more people will have to die in America before that country wakes up to its lunatic attitude to guns?
Time to change – and bring the Constitution up to date….
As the awful news unfolded last week about the shooting of children and teachers at a school in the USA – we all watched in horror and every parent in the UK looked on in dread, thinking ‘please don’t let that ever be me…”
When will those who bang on about the American Constitution realise that when that document was drawn up – it’s intention was not to allow inadequate people to be able to gun down innocent people. It’s intention, as I read it, was to allow people to defend their own property and homes. In the UK we tend to use the phrase ‘reasonable force’.
Last night I listened to an interview with an ‘expert’ who’s written a book, He was being interviewed on Newsnight – did you see it? – talking about how a gun ban would lead to more murders. it was one of the most negative forms of logic I’ve ever heard.
He compared our aggravated burglary rate in the UK (burglaries which occur when householders are at home) with a much lower rate in the USA – because would-be burglars know that many householders have guns so they don’t take the chance. They break in when there’s no one at home.
What a lunatic argument….burglary is something which is horrible but it’s not the same as murder in cold blood. In a place where children are meant to be as safe as possible. It’s not even an appropriate comparison. It indicates to me that the gun lobby is scratching around for reasons to keep their guns.
Campaigners like Michael Moore should be heeded and I hope every parent in that school joins together to put pressure on their legal representatives to change legislation the USA and then those changes are enforced with vigour.
Stringent controls on gun ownership are necessary in order to limit the risk of these terrible events. The risk can never been completely eliminated – and there are legitimate reasons why some people should own guns – but building barriers around that ownership must lead to a safer society.
The right to bear arms is not a greater right than the right to life – come on Obama stand up to those who wield guns like they are fashion accessories and take your place in history as the President who rejected the law of the gun.
Today many children went back to school – as a mum of three, I have three of these days to deal with this year as all three children are at different stages.
Today will possibly be the most long-winded and it reminded me of the trauma that many working parents feel when they are trying to do the right things for their children at school – and get to work on time. It’s a daily battle.
Being self-employed I’ve deliberately kept all three days as free as possible and I’ve not regretted it. After years of children at school, I finally found that it’s best to be as free as possible on days like today. It’s brought the stress down to a bearable level.
Last Friday it was first child to secondary school – getting up far too early, stressing about uniform, putting a tie on for the first time and the horror of my daughter in realising that she has to master this every day for the next few years! What a trauma. Then it’s the ‘what if’ period – what if I can’t find my friends? what if I get lost? what if I can’t find the toilets? what if I’ve forgotten my PE kit?
Notice that these ‘what ifs’ are not the same as us parents? Like, ‘what if the work is too hard? or what if my child gets bullied? or what if my child is naughty?’
What I did not have to do was take my child to school – no it’s now an early bus there and back, but that brings it’s own trauma about safety, on the road and on the bus.
Still we got over that day and today it was child number 2.
This trip is a move from Yr 4 to Yr 5 of a very laid-back child who is having a new teacher and some new cardigans but everything else is familiar.
However, what a parent so easily forgets over the summer is the hurdles one has to deal with in simply getting your child to school.
The traffic is worse and finding a parking space that a) isn’t a daft and unsafe place to park b) isn’t inconsiderate to residents. And then there’s always the risk that residents will simply object to you parking outside their house, even if it’s not unsafe or illegal to do so. I had this the other day (not on a school day) but on a new estate where there were no road markings at all. I was a visitor to the area, there were no yellow lines, no parking signs at all but a resident wrote me a snotty note and put it on my windscreen informing me that I should ‘park round the back or else’. Clearly he or she thought I was psychic and would know by osmosis that there were parking spaces elsewhere.
Back to today, my child gave me a quick kiss and disappeared, eager to see her friends and to find her way around a new classroom.
I then had to have at least five conversations with other parents about their particular experiences. Some clearly were parents who were short of adult company over the previous six weeks. I had the time, so it was no problem. But when you are working it’s so rude to say ‘that’s great, bye!’. Then I remembered her new cardigans and also the medical form for her asthma medication.
On entering the school office, there was a queue of mums waiting to do similar things.
I could see those eager to be away, hopping from one foot to another – knowing how they felt, I was relaxed about letting them jump the queue.
But then the form-filling – is it really necessary to fill out at least two forms saying the same thing? My child has asthma, she can self-administer her medication when she needs it – which is about once a week. She’s proficient at it, she’s learning to carry her inhalers herself at all times – but she’s not allowed to at school. This I know and accept. But there must be a more efficient way of dealing with this. There was one form and then another, both asking the same thing. This exercise took about 20 minutes and then I had to wait for her new cardigans – luckily that took about a minute.
So my youngest child was pretty bored by the time we left school at about 9.30am – goodness knows what it will be like on Friday when he starts for the first time. I’ll be lucky to get a coffee in before I’ve got to pick him up at lunchtime. Oh joy!
First day at school can seem like a long, uphill slog
Today was sports day at my children’s school. It was a fun day and they did really well. I took some great pics and was all ready to publish them in action on Facebook – didn’t really think about it being a problem.
can we put sports' day photos on the internet? should we?
Then a text arrived which stated that no photos could be put on to the internet at all.
This immediately raised my heckles. How dare anyone tell me not to publish photographs that I had taken of my children with my camera! Angry I fumed on Facebook.
I checked up with the Information Commission’s website which suggests that some schools do go too far – saying parents cannot video or photograph children taking part in school events and that’s not in the spirit of Data Protection.
Schools, it said, should not hide behind this as it does not cover photography for private use.
But what is private use? As far as I can see it doesn’t say ‘don’t put these photographs on the internet’ – though education guidance does say that.
Schools get very upset with mums like me. I do question things which seem to invade my freedom. Just because a headteacher says it is so – is it? just because a lawyer says it is so – is it? Why should we just say ‘yes miss, no miss’ when we’re adults?
I’ve filmed a lot in schools and the permission process is extremely rigorous – rightly so. I’ve often had to film around one or two children whose images cannot be shown and that’s fine. Some children need to be protected for clear, identifiable reasons.
I took the opportunity to talk to some other mums. One, a teacher, said she was happy and gave the impression that I was being like a stubborn child not to bow to this edict about personal sports day photos.
‘We are lucky,’ she said ‘that the school allows us to take pictures’.
Another mum said she could see both sides – there are several children in the school who cannot be filmed/photographed for their own protection. This I do get.
Using a photograph of your child, with someone who needs to be protected in the background, and should not be shown – well, I can see the logic in that.
However if I can crop the pictures and just show my children I can see nothing wrong with that decision as a parent, if I wish to publish. Of course, I do ask my children’s permission as they are old enough to be consulted about such things.
Of course all of this caution is often about protecting children from child sex offenders – who find the internet a fantastic place to hunt and hide in secret.
But does that mean that we have to abandon common sense and never put any photographs of our children on the net? Are we allowing these individuals (and there are more than most people think) to rule our freedom online? Should we?
My gut feeling is no. Why should we? Provided we do not reveal too much personal information, should we be that paranoid? Isn’t that giving these people more power?
And then a friend sent me a personal message. This friend reminded me that a former colleague is currently awaiting trial on various charges of child abuse including rape – someone that we were both connected to on the internet.
It brought me up short. This friend had had more contact with this man – but even the thought that someone could be looking at my children from afar and thinking vile thoughts was awful.
I‘d allowed this individual to enter my internet world – this was someone I’d known in ‘real’ life and hadn’t thought twice about connecting with.
I cannot pass comment on this individual as he’s innocent until proved guilty. However this friend has now removed all photographs of her children from the internet as she’s so shocked at this turn of events.
What have I concluded? Truth, I still feel uncomfortable about being told what to do with my own photographs.
I’m happy to not show others when I don’t have their permission to publish but I don’t want my natural actions restricted by the phantoms of gross human beings who want to prey on children for sexual gratification.
I do feel that there will come a time when social media sites will have to be both public and personal – it will be interesting
to see how these definitions evolve over time.
What do you think?