For several days I have been reading and watching coverage about the horrifying story of the bullied bus monitor. A viral YouTube video shows a group of middle school boys from New York relentlessly and cruelly taunting 68-year-old bus monitor Karen Klein, who has worked in the school system for more than 20 years.
The seventh-grade boys called her "fat" and taunted her about the tragic fact that one of her kids had committed suicide. The boys poke her and mock her and laugh at her without any sign of empathy for her increasing distress. Just watching the video made me feel sick.
When the video was uploaded to YouTube, it quickly generated outrage and disgust, and a campaign to raise funds for Klein took off like wildfire. More than $500,000 has been donated to Klein, who said she wants to return to her job, but on a different bus route and with an apology from the students.
The good news is that people are offering massive amounts of support to Klein and are talking about the societal problem of bullying.
The bad news is that people are so inflamed they are launching death threats at the kids and their parents. Angry strangers are barraging the school and the town and the families with hate-filled emails and phone calls and online comments. This is not the answer.
Klein has stated publicly that she was trying to ignore the kids and that she didn't want to get anyone in trouble. This is no surprise. Many victims are terrified to report bullying, because they fear getting the bullies in trouble and then having the bullies retaliate. So, in lieu of death threats and harsh physical punishment, both which have been suggested in thousands of online comments, what do we do?
Well, first we look at the role of the bus monitor. Technically, she is there to help keep kids safe (from bullying, among other things). The school district needs to properly train bus monitors on how to respond to bullying, and if a bus monitor does not feel that the school will back her up in protecting herself, how can she protect the kids on the bus? Bus monitors need to know that if they make a report about bullying, it will lead to a serious investigation by the school, and the kids who are acting as the bullies will receive appropriate discipline, but also that they will receive enhanced social and emotional services.
Seventh grade is a rough age, and the boys who were taunting Klein need some intervention. Not just suspension, not just expulsion, because studies have shown that removing the boys from the pro-social environment of school will not teach them to change how they treat people. Kids who act as bullies are at increased risk for future problems with depression and anxiety, so it helps our entire society to help them now. How about having the boys and their families meet with a therapist? How about having the boys do some community service with senior citizens? How about helping the boys to restore justice to Klein?
When I see the outrage people feel at this incident, I agree. But when I see it channeled as aggression and hate, I cringe. We have a culture that supports aggression and taunting, be it in the many reality TV shows that fling insults in order to obtain ratings, or in the advertisements that imply that overweight people are unworthy, and we are seeing the effects of these messages everywhere we look.
We see it when four middle school boys taunt an overweight senior citizen.
Yes, the boys should be held accountable, as should their parents and their school. But aren't we all accountable, too? Isn't the person who is sending death threats to the boys responsible? Isn't the TV show that rips on overweight people responsible? Aren't the politicians that bully each other responsible? Why do we tolerate this cruel behavior --even condone it -- in adults, but abhor it in children? They learn from watching the world around them.
And what of the other kids on the bus, who surely knew what was going on (and even videotaped it). What can we do to help those kids find the courage to say to the bullying boys, "That is uncool. Leave her alone." Were they also afraid of retaliation? Were they afraid of becoming targets? The entire culture of that bus needs to change. It needs to become a place where the kids view themselves and the adults on the bus with respect, where they hold themselves and each other accountable.
It is possible to do. It starts young, and it requires constant effort to teach kindness. If you have teenagers, watch this video with them. Ask them what they would have been feeling if they were on the bus. Help them brainstorm about ways they could have spoken up. More than half of bullying incidents stop in less than 10 seconds if a single person intervenes.
One of the things this video shows is that bullying affects all different types of people. Kids bully each other, but they can also bully a vulnerable adult. Adults bully each other. We see it in the workplace. We see it happen to senior citizens in long-term care, and to psychiatric patients. There is an enormous amount of bullying of those who are gender-nonconforming. Anyone who is different is at risk of being targeted, regardless of age or social status.
Bullying is not just a problem that affects school kids. The problem affects us all, and the solution requires us all.