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.
Racism has been on my mind this week for three reasons.
One I’m making a film for broadcast which, by its nature, brings up issues of racism. The film is not about racism but the subject matter means that it’s inevitable that it’s discussed during filmed interviews.
There was also the case of footballer John Terry where he was found not guilty by a magistrate. That too made me think. And we’ll hear more on that one as he’s also subject to a further investigation which doesn’t require the overwhelming burden of proof that the criminal court demands.
So imagine these things are spinning around in my space.
Then the third thing happened – racism walked through my door.
One of my children was talking with a friend, who doesn’t go to the same school. Indeed, this child’s parents were so anxious to give their child the best possible education they sent her to school miles and miles away. This child doesn’t have white skin, though I’ve never even considered that to be relevant to anything.
This child is beautiful, intelligent, a positive influence who has brought my family into contact with a new culture, new beliefs and has generally enriched our lives.
But she is suffering racism at school – it’s bullying with a ‘black’ tag and it’s something she’s never experienced before. It appears she got into spat with a child who had been a friend and it’s escalated, involving other voices and messages on Facebook and texts which involve racist comments.
This child appears at a loss to know what to do, we’re not even sure she’s told her parents. We feel that this is because the family have sacrificed much to send her to this school and she doesn’t want to let them down. In her primary school life this child didn’t have any moments like this so it’s come as a real shock.
And it came as a shock to me. I’m amazed by how terribly angry I feel and how impotent. What can I do? I don’t know her parents well enough to go around and tell them what’s going on – my child will feel like I’m betraying a trust. Something that needed to be discussed with me in confidence. I don’t know the name of the school.
But my anger is this – why would any child think it’s okay to do that? If my child did anything like that there would be such serious consequences at home – no phone, no tv, all rewards removed until earned through respect. And what about that school? What action would be taking if it was drawn to their attention?
Would they call in parents and then the police? Or will they gently talk through it, chat to the children concerned and hope it all goes away. What’s the betting it’s the latter.
There are no easy answers to this but we must make it clear that it’s utterly intolerable. A teenager today should not have to spend even one second of their life worrying about a racist slur.
What would you do?
Life isn't black or white....
Today I felt a flash of anger – as the issue of bullying came up in the news yet again. For us in the west, there’s a very sad news story about a young girl who died from hanging in Somerset.
Her parents have spoken at the inquest of bullying at school, being teased because of her weight, an eating disorder….the poor girl’s experiences now held up for public scrutiny. A terrible, terrible time for her parents. There’s that sense of needing, wanting to blame…but a verdict has yet to be reached, the inquest is still going on.
However, inquests are so important as they can throw up issues which enter the public domain for discussion and debate even if we should bear in mind the human costs involved. Bullying and its effect will surely be a theme with this story.
Today the head teacher of the school where this girl was a pupil gave evidence. I was not there at the inquest, so I’m taking information from the item I saw and heard on the local news bulletin. This head teacher apparently said that there was no bullying at school, the girls who were identified as teasing their fellow pupil about her weight, had denied it. The bulletin said it was simply a ‘clash of personalities’.
Is your child being bullied?
It’s this kind of tepid, ridiculous response which makes me seethe. It’s the kind of line I’ve heard more than once. It’s an adult casting his judgement on what a so-called ‘clash of personalities’ can do to a child. An adult has to understand that what he/she might see as ‘banter’ or ‘childish pranks’ or ‘pettiness’ , may be having a more profound effect on the victim of it. It’s no different than the dynamics of a workplace. Sometimes friendly banter from one person may be extremely offensive to someone else. How that person feels about that ‘friendly banter’ really matters.
While I don’t wish for one moment to suggest that my experiences are on a par with this terrible tragedy – it serves to highlight a point. Over the years, I’ve been the subject of ‘friendly banter’ and it’s been fine, I give as I much as I get. But on the odd occasion that friendly banter has crossed the line of what I think is acceptable. And that’s the key – WHAT I THINK IS ACCEPTABLE. So I have had to ensure that the person knows that a line has been crossed.
Transfer this experience to a child. To me, if a child feels bullied and gives off all the signs that they are feeling victimised – surely a head teacher cannot dismiss this as a ‘clash of personalities’ or ‘pettiness’. And claiming that there’s no bullying worries me – where’s the school which truly has no bullying? and which way does a child turn if he/she feels no one is listening and nothing is going to change. At best it’s something they’ll never forget, at worst – well…..
Another thing which bothers me is that if parents are continually fed lines like this, they interpret it as it’s their child which is the problem and will often move schools. Therefore it can be the case that it’s the victim who pays – and not the bully. I often wonder when this happens, if the bullies who got away with it have gone on in later life to display similar behaviour.
Let’s be frank about this. Schools need to get to grips with bullying and deal with it more intelligently. Don’t pretend it’s not a problem, or it’s two people clashing where one is as responsible as another. Look at each case critically and apportion blame where it lies. Children need justice too.
Would you notice if a cyber-bully targeted you?
Cyber bullying – we’ve all heard of it haven’t we? In this age of social mediaand the freedom of the internet, there are risks.
People can be lovely, supportive, connected but occasionally someone can be vile or abusive. Or just plain horrid.
This bullying can take many forms. It can actually creep on you unexpectedly. How do I know this? Well, it recently happened to a close member of my family and it took me some days to realise what was happening…
When a member of my family changed schools recently, he left behind some friends that well, let’s just say, were best left behind. He had had some issues with one or two before and, although sorted out, it was no bad thing to have left those individuals behind.
Unlike when I was a child though, these days youngsters can keep in touch in a way they couldn’t before. That means keeping in touch with friends who have gone elsewhere to school. And those children know other children. I think you might be getting my drift here.
This family member mentioned to me that through Skype, he was keeping in touch with friends.
Through those friends, other so-called friends were also making contact.
For a while that worked okay. Then those other ‘friends’ (and I use the words advisedly) started sniping at him. Firstly it was criticising his ‘text speak’ suggesting that he should know how to spell properly. Then it was appearing to send a message and then deleting it. No swearing, nothing obvious, in fact really petty. Initially it was treated as such.
After a period of time, Skype turned to texts. Texts turned to at least one swear word that I’m aware of. Texts turned to sniping remarks. Trying to make him feel small and stupid. Again, really petty stuff.
But it suddenly occurred to me that I was viewing this as an adult in my 40s, not as a child would view it. For a child, this is serious stuff. This means that this petty person could be influencing people who really matter, friends who really matter to that child. He was fearful of losing true friends as a result of this means of being sniping and petty and needling. This was beginning to hurt.
Even when I argued that true friends would not be influenced, it cut no ice.
Again, I realised that it’s much easier for an adult – and a journalist at that – to brush off such criticism, such personal sniping. It’s not easy for a child.
I also realised that if the recipient of petty comments is hurt by them – that’s bullying. It also becomes firmly rooted when the person doesn’t stop when the child tells them to stop. The only reason this didn’t spill over into Facebook is that this family member doesn’t have a profile on that social media site. He’s too young and not allowed.
This was a lesson learned for me as an adult and, hopefully, for him as a child. As a family we’ve now discussed it. Cyber-bullying may not be blatantly obvious but the effects can be upsetting and it can happen over a very short period.
When a final text arrived accusing my family member of something trivial, I replied, warning that individual to leave him alone or I would be paying a visit to parents. I know where this person lives.
Since then no texts, no contact, to my knowledge. I hope the warning was enough.
But from now on, I’m much more aware of my family member’s interaction over the internet and texts. It’s worth remembering that it’s not just the obvious risks, but other, seemingly ridiculous, nonsense can creep up on a family unawares.