"Lord of the Flies" on wheels.
That's how Jim Dillon, a retired elementary school principal, described the American school bus when I interviewed him at his home in Niskayuna last week.
"The bus is loud, chaotic," Dillon said. "Kids are smart enough to know that what happens on the bus stays on the bus."
Dillon is the author of the "Peaceful School Bus," a guide for educators on how to replace the culture of intimidation and bullying that so often dominates the school bus with a culture of respect and cooperation.
He contacted me earlier this month, after a troubling incident on a school bus in the Broadalbin-Perth Central School District inspired a column about how districts should do more to protect students from bullying — and other forms of abuse and violence — on the bus.
Part of the reason he reached out, he said, was to let me know that there is a way to make the bus a safer and more pleasant place to be. This came as news to me — news that, given the prevalence of bullying and other behavioral issues on the school bus, I was happy to hear.
According to Dillion, it is possible to solve the problem of school bus bullying.
But it requires patience and a deep commitment to creating a community where people care about each other and treat each other well.
Dillon created his Peaceful School Bus program at Lynwood Elementary School in Guilderland, where he served as principal from 1999 to 2010.
The impetus for the program was "the big discrepancy we were seeing between how kids behaved at school and how they behaved on the bus," he said.
At Lynwood, kids were generally well behaved, the result of an approach to discipline that emphasized building community and teaching kids how to get along. Each classroom held regular meetings where students sat in a circle and discussed the kind of classroom they wanted to be.
This process "creates strong social norms," Dillon said, instilling in students "a sense that we're all in it together and that you treat everyone with respect even if you don't like them."
But "it didn't carry over to the school bus."
Dillon decided to try to tackle this problem head-on, using some of the methods that worked at school. "If we can have community in the classroom, why can't we have it in the classroom?" he asked.
To build community on the bus, Dillon brought kids from every bus route into school for a series of meetings with the other kids on their route.
Older students were paired up with younger students and encouraged to get to know each other, in hopes that doing so would lead to fewer instances of older kids bullying younger kids.
Teachers would ask students what kind of bus they wanted to have, and the students would discuss it. In general, the students were in agreement: They wanted the bus to be a nice place to be.
Prior to implementing his Peaceful School Bus program, Dillon received about 63 reports of bad behavior on the bus each year. After the program had been in place for five years, the number of reports dropped to fewer than five a year.
Which is pretty good.
Implementing the Peaceful School Bus takes time, but it's worth it, Dillon said.
"If kids get off the bus in a good frame of mind, they're going to learn more," he said.
The Peaceful School Bus program won't eliminate all school bus problems, Dillon said.
But it will make students and bus drivers more wiling to intervene and to report bad behavior to teachers and administrators.
"I knew the program was working when I had some kids come up to me and say, 'Our bus is having some problems. Can we have a special meeting?'"
The Peaceful School Bus program doesn't always work.
Sometimes schools try to implement it, but don't see the desired results, Dillon said.
"It's not a quick fix, and schools are places that want quick fixes," Dillon told me. "If you don't have a peaceful classroom, the Peaceful School Bus isn't going to work."
Thus far, 3,400 copies of the "Peaceful School Bus" have been sold.
Since retiring, Dillon has continued his anti-bullying work.
He's also the author of "No Place for Bullying: Leadership for Schools that Care for Every Student" and "Reframing Bullying Prevention," as well as two books for children, "Okay Kevin" and "Marching with Dr. King."
After speaking with Dillon, I'm convinced schools can fix their school bus bullying problem, but only if they really want to.
The school bus is a unique environment, and the traditional approach to discipline has little impact on the behavior of the students who ride it. But a different approach might make a difference.
For too long, schools have turned a blind eye to school bus bullying.
It's time to change that — and the Peaceful School Bus program demonstrates how to do it.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]