Champion Zone Kids

Caroline school bus drivers received a $250 grant for an anti-bullying program. The drivers involved in the effort include (standing, from left) Erick Childs, Thomas Brown, Shyla Sale with son Brice, Dawn Hawkins and Valerie Silva. Joining the group on the ground is Sale’s son Brice.

Even though their backs are facing the students, school bus drivers are aware of almost everything that happens on their buses.

And they know which kids are being bullied.

“We see everything. We see the ones who come in crying or who cower down in their seats. Or who lash out,” said Dawn Hawkins, a bus driver for Caroline County Public Schools.

Not only does Hawkins observe the effects of bullying—aggressive behavior that is intentional, involves an imbalance of power or strength and takes place over time—on other kids; last year, she observed it in her own daughter.

“My daughter went into Caroline Middle School [this past year] along with my friends’ kids, and sitting back and watching what these kids are going through was awful,” Hawkins said. “My daughter went from loving school to telling me, ‘I don’t want to go. I didn’t know it was going to be like this.’ ”

Hawkins wanted to do something. She didn’t want to be a bystander.

“I know this isn’t just Caroline,” she said. “It’s every school. We all see the news. But this is my school, my county.”

One day last August, she was driving her bus and she suddenly thought “safety pins.”

She envisioned students and community members wearing safety pins to show their support for students experiencing bullying and feeling alone.

Ideas started flowing fast. Hawkins attributes them to “faith and fate.” She saw small, student-led groups working on building self-esteem and learning coping skills. She saw people teaching kids how to look out for their fellow students and how to feel comfortable sitting down next to someone they don’t know.

She said she’d wake up at 3 a.m. with an idea and text her friends and fellow bus drivers Shyla Sale and Thomas Brown, who also have children in the school system.

In February, Hawkins brought the bus drivers’ ideas to their boss, school system transportation director J.D. Satterwhite. As she was telling him, Satterwhite stopped her.

“He said he loved it and he wanted to bring [director of school leadership and improvement Herbert Monroe] in right away,” Hawkins said.

Monroe and Caroline Middle School Principal Karen Foster liked Hawkins’s idea. Hawkins said she was overwhelmed by the school division’s support.

“If you look at me, I’m not a normal bus driver,” she said. “I have about 60 tattoos covering my body. So for the school to stand behind me—it’s amazing.”

Then in April, Brown found out about a grant offered by Safe Fleet, a company that provides safety products for fleet vehicles, through its United Against Bullying program. The program offers tools, resources and funding to school systems to support their best initiatives against bullying and empower young people to stand up against abusive behavior.

United Against Bullying was accepting applications for its annual grant. The deadline was April 23. That gave the Caroline bus drivers two weeks to write a proposal and apply.

“We met for lunch at Shyla’s house and spent four hours writing the grant,” Hawkins said.

None of the bus drivers had ever written a grant proposal before. They didn’t even know how much money to ask for— “We went low, just $500,” Hawkins said—and they certainly didn’t expect to win a nationwide grant contest.

But their proposal was one of 68 winners from a pool of 158 applicants for the 2018 United Against Bullying grant.

Because the grant committee wanted to reach more students this year, it decided to award smaller grants to a larger number of applicants. The Caroline bus drivers received $250 for their bullying prevention program, which will be called “Champions in the Zone.”

The grant money will be used to purchase pins with dove icons that students, faculty, staff and community members will wear to represent participation in the program and to sponsor quarterly community events.

Foster, the Caroline Middle School principal, said time will be embedded into the school day for lessons—that will eventually be student-led—on coping skills, self-esteem, tolerance and civility.

Students will be asked to keep positivity journals, recording anything positive they experience or do each day.

Hawkins and Sale said they’ve been keeping positivity journals themselves. They figure that if they are going to ask kids to go outside their comfort zones and engage—in real life, not digitally—with people they don’t know, they should do the same.

Foster said she likes the bus drivers’ program because it focuses on the positive.

“If you look at any successful anti-bullying program, what it does is ignore the ‘anti’ part,” Foster said. “It’s about promoting the behaviors you want to see.”

Satterwhite said that the program will bridge a gap in the students’ day between home and school.

“Now we can reach the kids from the moment the school system gets involved every day,” he said.

He said that while the Caroline school system has maintained a website for the anonymous reporting of bullying, awareness of the website hasn’t been promoted on the school buses. It will be now, as part of Champions in the Zone.

Foster noted how important it is to reach kids early, because often, she said, the course of a student’s entire day is set by what happens on the bus in the morning.

Satterwhite added that the bus drivers’ program also happens to coincide perfectly with the school division’s five-year strategic plan, Pathways 2022.

The second goal identified in the plan is “to nurture school-community partnerships” that “provide support for youth and families.”

“We’re all in one big group,” Satterwhite said.

Champions in the Zone will kick off when school is back in session in August, Foster said.

Hawkins still can’t believe that her middle-of-the-night ideas have turned into a formal program with the backing of her fellow bus drivers—who she calls her family—and the school division.

“This is the first time I’ve ever done anything like this at all,” she said. “This is extremely exciting for me.

“Big things are happening in Caroline,” she added.

If you look at any successful
anti-bullying program,
what it does is ignore the ‘anti’ part.
It’s about promoting the behaviors you want to see. Karen Foster,
Caroline Middle School Principal

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Adele Uphaus–Conner: 540/735-1973 @flsadele

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