Taunting the School Bus Monitor: Do the Consequences Fit the Crime?

07/05/2012 12:08 pm ET | Updated Sep 04, 2012

The four middle school boys who relentlessly tormented 68-year-old school bus monitor Karen Klein have received their punishment. Karen Klein said she feels that the boys received the appropriate punishment and hence their just desserts. These middle schoolers were suspended from their school for one year. They are going to an alternative school for one year and they will each be required to do 50 hours of community service with senior citizens. Keep in mind that 50 hours is less than two weeks for each boy.

Although Karen Klein agrees with the punishment doled out to the boys who bullied her, as a psychologist, I have some very different thoughts about the consequences. From a psychological perspective, what these young men did to her is referred to in the psychological literature as "dehumanization," or the process whereby negative stereotypes are used to degrade and demean others. Once others are degraded -- in this case, the woman's weight and appearance were used against her -- individuals sometimes give themselves permission to treat another individual as less important than themselves and less important than a human being.

While it is probably good for the peers of the students who did the bullying to see that such behavior results in expulsion, I am concerned nonetheless that these young men are not doing enough repair work that will help them learn about empathy. Less than two weeks of community service with the elderly may not teach them about empathy. Based on the video of the bullying incident, it was my impression that they mostly focused on the school bus monitor's weight. The appropriate consequence would be for these boys to engage in several months of empathy building exercises, including volunteering with all sorts of populations who may find life more challenging than they do. Empathy or understanding how it feels to be in the shoes of others is a skill that takes longer than two weeks to learn.

Karen Klein appears to be a sensitive and empathic woman. She did not want to press charges against these boys. She was pleased to receive an apology. She demonstrated the empathy that these young men lacked. She herself apparently experienced the suicide of one of her own children, which I certainly hope that the boys didn't know about when they suggested that all of her relatives killed themselves.

While I am an advocate of teens and work with them and their parents, I am not a fan of dehumanization. I believe that an individual of any age who engages in this process should be made aware of how harmful it is and learn behaviors that discourage them from harming others in this way. Individuals of any age who have empathy skills do not threaten to stab a bus monitor, give themselves permission to touch her body, mock her and her family, and laugh while the victim is crying and in obvious emotional pain. What these boys did could have been dealt with more appropriately and I hope for the sake of all involved that they change their ways.