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.
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.