The children clambered off the school bus and through the drifted snow, many with jackets open and hats in hand -- now safely out of mom's eyesight. They gathered in clumps or straggled alone, bumping, running, laughing and talking loudly.

They were on their best behavior.

They followed bus driver Frank Zerwas into Forest Lake Elementary School, down the hall and into the band room for a special session of the Peaceful School Bus program -- the latest initiative of Forest Lake School District to halt bullying and improve bus safety.

Forest Lake is the first metro-area district to adopt the program, but bullying is a concern for all schools.

The bus is the one part of the school day when typically kids are not supervised by an adult -- giving some the opportunity to toss their weight around and filling others with fear and trepidation of being pushed around or teased.

"The bus is not the number one place where bullying occurs, but it's the one place there is no adult supervision," says Carolyn Latady, family support advocate for the district and the program's leader. "Bus drivers can't turn their attention to the students because they have to drive."

The program works on the concept that each bus group is a community that can be strengthened if the kids and driver all get to know each other. Pictures of students standing with their driver in front of their bus hang in the school's hallways. It is one of the ways of telling the kids that the rules inside the school extend to the bus.

Fifth-grade teacher Scott Beglinger led the discussion last week with students on the Zerwas bus, telling the big kids to look out for the little ones and telling everyone to keep their hands to themselves and their fannies in their assigned seats. Zerwas piped in that sometimes a word or two comes out of a child's mouth that shouldn't. That's when they end up sitting in front, next to him.

The program seems to be working. School officials say the number of problems referred from incidents on the bus is down by half so far this year.

Other districts have other ways of dealing with the problems. Though unaware of the Peaceful School Bus program, Creek Valley Elementary School in Edina brought its bus drivers in to meet with students three times last year -- the same as the Peaceful Bus requirements. Some districts, such as Wayzata, have anti-bullying language written into their student behavior manuals.

Bullying risk factors

The Peaceful School Bus program was developed by James Dillon, an elementary school principal in Schenectady, N.Y., and it is published, sold and supported by Hazelden, the nationally known alcohol and drug addiction treatment center based in Center City, Minn.

"There would be incidents of bullying on the bus that would go undetected by the bus driver, and the kids felt they had no one to report it to. They felt it was on the bus, and it stayed on the bus," said Dillon. Research shows that only 5 percent of bullying ever gets reported, he says.

The program Dillon began 10 years ago because he was spending too much time investigating bullying complaints was noticed by Hazelden, which asked Dillon to develop and write a full-fledged program. Hazelden began publishing the program earlier this year and has so far sold about 1,000 copies to schools.

"We have a bullying program at Hazelden because we know that all the risk factors related to young people are interrelated," said Marty Harding, director of training and consultation at Hazelden's publishing wing. "We also know there is a connection between kids who bully and alcohol and other drug use," she said.

Just like it's supposed to work

In Forest Lake the program involves three meetings a year between staff facilitators, kids and the bus drivers. In the first meeting between Zerwas and his riders, in September, he told them about his four grown children and six grandchildren, some of them the same age as those on his bus. He also told them that he likes horses and plays the guitar.

But more importantly than building relationships between drivers and children, the program seeks to strengthen the relationships among children by helping them get to know each other and be responsible for each other, Latady says. They are the ones who see bullying first hand, and they are the ones who can stop it quickly, or prevent themselves from falling into it.

That's the situation Teryn Rajczyk, a sixth-grader at Forest Lake Elementary, found herself in last week. A fifth-grader was teasing and a kindergartner wasn't taking well to it.

"I told him to stop it," Rajczyk said.

Gregory A. Patterson • 651-298-1546