As School Bus Sexual Assaults Rise, Danger Often Overlooked

Ashley Killian, 12, shown with mother Jessica and brother Alejandro, 6, was allegedly groped on a bus.
Ashley Killian, 12, shown with mother Jessica and brother Alejandro, 6, was allegedly groped on a bus. (By Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
By Elizabeth Williamson and Lori Aratani
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, June 14, 2005

Last spring, a sixth-grade Montgomery County girl was thrown down in the back of her school bus by several older boys who, the girl said, grabbed her breasts and buttocks and feigned sex acts.

In December, a 6-year-old Frederick County girl was allegedly fondled by a middle-schooler while riding a bus to her gifted student program. Her mother said she didn't learn of the incident until May, when the driver told her.

Two months ago, an 11-year-old girl was allegedly attacked by two girls and three boys during a bus ride home from her elementary school, south of Richmond. The group, the girl said, held her down, groped her and penetrated her with an object.

Every day, 440,000 school buses ferry 18 million children to and from schools and activities across the United States. Accidents, seat belts and safe crossings generally are the matters parents worry about. But experts say sexual assaults on school buses, one of the fastest-growing forms of school violence, seldom register as a safety concern.

Although many school systems don't identify bus assaults independently of all school violence, administrators, teachers and bus drivers say the nature and frequency of the attacks are increasing, and at younger ages. The incident involving the Germantown girl was one of four alleged sexual assaults on Montgomery County's school buses this school year; the alleged attackers in Virginia were as young as 8.

A 2001 report commissioned by the American Association of University Women found that eight of every 10 students in grades 8 through 11 report having been sexually harassed at school, most often by peers. One-third of students surveyed said they were first harassed in grade school.

"I've never experienced the problems and the degenerate actions of kids as I have this past year," said bus driver Bob Baxley of Hagerstown, Md., who has been driving school buses for 12 years. He was driving during the alleged attack in Frederick. On the same bus, Baxley saw middle school boys describe sex acts to first-graders and one boy try to shove a condom into another child's mouth.

"Sexual harassment is a much more serious issue in public schools than most people have been willing to admit," said Robert Shoop, a professor at Kansas State University. "And it's much more likely to occur in unsupervised venues -- like buses or bathrooms."

Buses are "more dangerous, in that society has become more sexualized and less civil," Shoop added. "Now many more kids are saying, 'I don't want to ride the bus.' They're scared."

Yet, he said, only about 5 to 10 percent of students report being victimized. "It takes a lot of courage on the kid's part and money on the parent's part" to press forward with charges, Shoop said.

Schools, safety advocates say, need to improve school bus supervision, teach students about appropriate behavior and encourage students to report incidents that cross the line. When incidents do occur, quick and decisive action by schools and police is vital, Shoop said. "Kids have to see there are consequences," he said. Otherwise, "they don't see it as serious."

Sometimes neither participants nor victims know when bad behavior becomes criminal.

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