When Should Passengers Intervene on the Bus?

by on November 29, 2012 · 11 comments

in Culture, Life Events, San Diego

Sustainability 101: When Should Passengers Intervene on the Bus?

Picture this:   You’re on the bus and you see a mother with three beautiful school-age children and one adorable toddler in a stroller. The children are well-behaved, the toddler is babbling excitedly, and the mother is yelling at the children, especially the toddler, even covering his mouth, threatening to slap his face if he doesn’t sit still and be quiet.

What would you do?

You see the mother again. This time with the father, presumably. The toddler is there, crawling all over daddy, who seems to savor the attention and returns it affectionately, soft-spoken and patient. The mother sits there, staring into space, and you realize she doesn’t look well. In fact, she looks absolutely exhausted. The father gets off the bus at the same stop as you do, while the mother and toddler remain on the bus.

Do you follow the father, tell him about the incident you saw, or does your heart go out to the mother, chalking the prior incident up to one of those proverbial bad days?

You see this mother on the bus and the trolley several more times and her behavior is the same. You find yourself wishing you’d taken the earlier bus, and you feel like an emotional hostage. Then, on another day, she’s yelling even louder and you see her practically slam her toddler into the seat to make him stay, screaming at the top of her lungs. The other children look around in embarrassment, well, at least one appears to do so, meets your eyes for a moment, then turns away. You find yourself wondering if this is one of those silent pleas for help or a non-verbal request to ignore the situation. The little girl returns to playing with her sister while the elder brother sits across the row with the mother who finally picks up the toddler, sets him on her lap. When they get off the bus, the toddler is sleeping.

Why didn’t I say or do anything? Why didn’t anyone else? I can’t help but wonder what was reeling through their minds. I know what was reeling through mine. . Are they, like me, resisting the urge to speak with her or the driver? Are they, like me, disturbed by what they see? Do they wonder if it’s worse at home? After all, if the mother will behave like this on the bus, how does she behave at home?

While some passengers may believe it’s none of their business, the fact that these (and other incidences) are occurring on the bus right in front of us, makes it part of our immediate experience. The bus is a public space, and as such, what occurs is governed by written and unwritten rules of conduct. But what about our conscience? Our civic duties ? What are the legal, as well as ethical, guidelines?

The last incident I witnessed prompted me to talk to the driver. I informed him of the ongoing situation with this mother and her children, and that I had been ready to ask him to stop the bus and contact the police department. While he showed genuine concern, the driver said that I needed to contact MTS to determine their policies. He also added that if he did intervene, the mother could complain that her civil rights were being violated. I left a rather detailed message with MTS, but they haven’t returned my call. I will try again.

Since I wanted to find out how to properly proceed in a situation like this, I contacted the San Diego Police Department’s Western Division and spoke with Community Relations Officer Dave Suwillo. He stated that the police department “would prefer to be involved within the early stages of a situation in order to calm it before it escalates.” Since interpretations of a situation tend to be subjective, if the situation hasn’t escalated, but would benefit from intervention, Suwillo stated that a passenger could move a safe distance away from the situation to contact 911 or the non-emergency number at 619-531-2000.

“We would rather show up, talk to the individuals, and educate them as to acceptable displays of child rearing practices prior to making an arrest,” says Suwillo. “However, if it is clear an adult or a child is being assaulted or abused and the situation has already escalated, it’s important to call 911 for immediate intervention.” He also added that it’s important to stay on-the-line when speaking with dispatch, and to provide the bus number, time and heading so that the department can do their best to intervene. In some cases, the police may hold the bus, while in others they may remove the individuals to discuss the situation and allow the bus to proceed on its route. In cases where the police need to hold the bus, they usually do their best to obtain another bus as soon as possible so that the passengers can reach their destinations.

In closing, interpretations are definitely subjective, but if you believe a situation warrants an intervention, trust your instincts and pull out that cell phone. If you know any parents (or their children) who need assistance, be there for them if you’re able. If not, then direct them toward parenting classes, counseling, or other relevant services, by contacting San Diego’s Help Line at 211 or by visiting their website at www.211sandiego.org.

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar John November 29, 2012 at 5:30 pm

You’re throwing a lot of hypothetical issues out there which rely on ones’ own interpretation of events.
I’m afraid to say the driver is right and it’s pretty much not for you to intervene based upon your own interpretations of what appears (to you) to be bad parenting.
However if something which amounts to criminal child abuse does occur you would be prudent to capture this on camera as it happens and if you feel it is appropriate take that to police dept. investigators with all the add’l info you can provide.
(I’m surprised the officer did not discuss such video documentation, but perhaps this is expected. Actually convicting people of crimes and putting them behind bars, rather than say you would, is very time consuming and expensive. A video documentation of a crime is a slam dunk conviction VS eyewitness testimony)

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avatar Terrie Leigh Relf November 30, 2012 at 1:17 pm

Thank you for responding, John. I agree, it is hypothetical and my own interpretation. However, this situation caused me to pause and I wanted to follow through so that I was better informed.

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avatar mr.rick November 29, 2012 at 8:57 pm

There was a time a while back when I was in charge of some small kids. One two year old was making a break for the street. Which was well traveled. And the only thing I could get a hold of was a hand full of strawberry blond ringlettes. Someone might have misinterpreted this. You never know. My philosophy is to wait until they slap one across the face or something before I butt in. Raise so much hell that the bus driver has to stop the bus and call the cops. You’ll take the heat off the kid and when the man shows up, you can give him the lowdown. I have resorted to physical confrontation to shift the focus from the youngster to me.It works but it’s dangerous.

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avatar Terrie Leigh Relf November 30, 2012 at 1:28 pm

I think your point is definitely well-made, Mr. Rick. We don’t always know what the whole story is. When a child’s safety is on the line, I can understand grabbing them – even by the hair. I realize intervening can be dangerous, and the last thing I would like to do is escalate a situation.

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avatar Kim November 30, 2012 at 8:13 am

maybe intervention should include you entertaining the kid for a bit?

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avatar Terrie Leigh Relf November 30, 2012 at 1:29 pm

I actually did that once. . .briefly. . .playing peek-a-boo with him.

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avatar Randal Graves November 30, 2012 at 1:44 pm

I find it’s best to stay out of other people’s affairs.

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avatar Terrie Leigh Relf December 1, 2012 at 4:20 pm

Your point is well-made, Randal, but I still think that it’s something to reflect upon. . .At what point might you intervene, though?

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avatar Seth December 2, 2012 at 11:33 pm

It’s pretty simple… if you see a child getting struck violently, you should report that.

If you see a frustrated, angry parent holding a kid down in their seat and speaking forcefully to them in order to keep them from getting crazy on a city bus… mind your damn business. Especially if they have more than one, and especially if you don’t have any kids of your own, gimme a break. Not saying it is right, but it’s gonna happen.

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avatar Terrie Leigh Relf December 3, 2012 at 4:16 pm

Hey Seth:

Point taken. . .I could go on and on about what might work more effectively than yelling, threatening bodily harm, and so forth; however, I’ll refrain.

I have two kids, for the record.

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