Editor's note: This is the first of a three-part series examining the issue of bullying and its impact on students, parents and educators.
In the final week of the school year, Debbie Davis found out her grandson was being bullied on the bus to Ocean Bay Elementary School.
She didn't find out from him or from a school official, but from the mother of a younger boy who rode the same bus and saw three students ganging up on her grandson at the back of the vehicle.
"A child was so upset that he went to his mother, and she came to me," said Davis, whose daughter and grandson have lived with her since he was born. "I was devastated."
This year, Davis' grandson has faced more bullying on his bus ride to middle school, and Davis said that despite all the recent attention about bullying - October was National Bullying Prevention Month - "unfortunately, it is still alive and kicking." According to STOMP Out Bullying, a national anti-bullying program of nonprofit Love Our Children USA, one of four teens is bullied and a child is bullied on a playground every seven minutes.
With a spate of teen suicides linked to bullying in the national news and a recent school shooting locally, bullying and its effects have the attention not just of school officials, but of parents and of students seeking to make a difference.
With more awareness of the problem inside school buildings, spots outside of class - such as on the bus - present bullying opportunities. Computers and cell phones become portals - STOMP Out Bullying says 97 percent of middle schoolers are bullied while online - and students don't always want to talk about it, whether out of embarrassment or fear of retribution.
In Horry County, bullying came front and center after a shooting incident at Socastee High School in September. Police say a student fired at the school resource officer. Two pipe bombs also were found in the student's backpack, and according to the teen's attorney, his behavior stems from being bullied. The teen will have a detention hearing in Family Court on Friday.
Davis has been working with the school administration on her grandson's behalf, but she said she spoke up because she is concerned about bullying in and out of the classroom. Her grandson was reticent to report what was happening, and Davis is concerned about the impact of such incidents on children.
"Right now, kids on that bus are experiencing damage that could last a lifetime," said Davis of taunting and name-calling that her grandson and other students have experienced this year. "Have parents not talked to their kids about bullying others? ... I don't want any child to be damaged."
In the first incident, the mother told Davis that the bus driver promised to report the bullying, but when Davis contacted the school, no one had been made aware of the situation.
"Last year, [the bullying] was physical," Davis said. "There were three of them who would gang up on him. ... I think it's because he's quiet, and we just don't do violence in our house. He won't come back at them.
"The vice principal told me that because of the crackdown at the school, [the bus is] where they feel they can do it freely," she said.
This year, her grandson moved up to Ocean Bay Middle School and, when she inquired about the bus ride, he told Davis that two older students were verbally abusive to him and using extremely foul language.
"My grandson won't even tell me the words that they use, but I don't know if he's telling me the whole story," Davis said. "He is so afraid of this; he won't tell what's going on."
Davis said she had been on alert once school started and had noticed on several occasions that her grandson would come in after school, say he had a really bad day and go to his room. She wanted to put an early stop to the problem and called school officials.
Teal Britton, spokeswoman for Horry County Schools, said calling the school was an appropriate action and that parents should be persistent in bringing problems to light. She said the bus driver can be addressed directly and that each attendance area also has a bus supervisor, whom parents can find in the parent/student handbook.
"If we know and if we are aware [of a bullying problem], we are ethically bound to react," Britton said.
Britton said that school bus drivers have a tremendous amount of responsibility in operating large vehicles filled with students in hectic traffic areas and also having to be aware of what's happening in all directions, despite inherent distractions.
But the drivers also work with minimal contracts, a small amount of authority, prohibitive schedules and no paid days provided for specific training in areas other than getting their license, she said.
Britton said there are video cameras on the buses, but there is no audio to record what is said.
Bus drivers have the authority to reprimand students on the bus for disruptions, and some use systems such as assigned seating to keep order, but if a problem persists, the driver must make a formal report.
"As far as discipline, that is handed down from the base school," Britton said, which typically includes days off the bus, and parents are notified. "It is the administration's responsibility to investigate."
She said some assistant principals have ridden on routes to observe and that other students could be interviewed, but as with any situation, there has to be some verification before they can act.
"Bus transportation is a privilege," Britton said. "If students cannot manage their behavior, then they are forfeiting that privilege."
Davis said that with the elementary school incident, the boys in question were brought together with her grandson to talk. They were allowed to ride the bus home that day but were expelled from the bus for the few days left in the school year, which Davis didn't feel was adequate.
With the most recent incident, Davis' call prompted a principal to talk with her grandson and get names, while promising to reprimand the students without using his name. Davis said the reassurance didn't calm her grandson, and she even received a call from his teacher that day because the boy was so distracted in class.
Neither boy was expelled. Two days later, one was on his best behavior on the bus, while the other chose to pick on someone else, Davis said. Davis said a new bus driver also was on duty, and the driver pulled the bus over to settle the matter.
"So maybe we're getting somewhere," she said.
Britton said that if a problem on a bus escalates, there could be other consequences for an unruly student, because the bus ride is still part of their school day.
Students speak out
Some students are speaking out to raise awareness and encourage their peers not to tolerate those who abuse others.
Patrick Kohlmann, a sophomore at St. James High School, is a teen ambassador for the Stomp Out Bullying program, and in October, he spearheaded Blue Shirt Day at St. James to get out the anti-bullying message.
"I wanted everyone to know that bullying isn't right," said Kohlmann, who said then that he had experienced bullying. "I don't want anyone to go through what I went through."
Kaitlon Camper, a senior at North Myrtle Beach High School, took action by organizing A Ride to Save Lives, a ride for motorcycles and cars to benefit suicide awareness programs and bullying prevention in schools. The event, part of Camper's senior project, was held Nov. 6 and raised just over $2,000, more than their goal, she said.
Camper said the money will go to Mental Health America of South Carolina and that she hopes the ride will become a yearly event. She said her focus for the run came after two of her friends attempted suicide in separate incidents after being bullied because they were gay.
"[Students] would talk about them behind their back and in front of them," Camper said.
She said that while some of their friends would stand up for them, others just watched, probably from fear of retribution.
Britton said more work must be done to lessen the intimidation factor for students so they will feel comfortable doing the right thing.
"We have to help instill civic responsibility in kids to stand up for themselves and others," Britton said. "Silence gives authority. Students are the most powerful deterrent to negative behavior."
Contact VICKI GROOMS at 443-2401.