Most parents are holding their breath until their kids are out of middle school, safe from the violence of bullying. But no one could have imagined that this epidemic would spread to grandmothers.
A shocking video, shot in June and just over ten minutes long, uncovers the unconscionable: a school bus monitor from Greece, NY, 68-year-old Karen Klein, sitting alone in her seat as the voices of an anonymous pack of seventh-grade boys unleash an ugly string of gratuitous taunts and name-calling.
They mock her about her weight. They make fun of her purse. They tease her about her son's suicide. And their language is reprehensible -- it's very hard to watch without becoming angry.
"You're so fat." "You fat-ass." "You friggin' slut." "You ugly-ass troll."
At one point, the sad and bewildered woman, now crying, attempts to say something any adult might say when outnumbered by a gang whose weapon is abject cruelty.
"Unless you have something nice to say, don't say anything at all," Karen says softly.
"Shut the f**k up," one child responds.
Watching this horrible clip, you can't help but ask yourself: Don't these children have grandmas? Parents? Didn't they grow up in a family? Even those who regularly turn a blind eye to bullying cannot look at this video and say, "But that's how it's always been at school. Kids will be kids." And all that.
If there's one thing that the Karen Klein incident proves to us, it's that what used to be looked upon as "schoolyard pranks" has grown into a national emergency -- and the thorny vines of this crisis are now reaching deeper into our families. That's the dire consequence when we allow a problem to grow out of control.
Last month, I attended a bullying prevention summit in Washington, D.C., and among the speakers was Robert Rodriguez, the White House Special Assistant for Education. In his remarks, Robert reflected on his own personal experience as a parent, commenting that, as our children grow, we try to provide them the freedom to learn to make decisions on their own.
But bullying, he said, is not something they could -- or should -- handle alone.
"Above all things, we want our children to be safe," Robert commented. "That responsibility to provide a safe environment for our children starts at birth -- it's instilled in all of us as parents. And when a child is bullied, we have failed that duty."
Exactly. This is why much of our effort in our anti-bullying campaign this year will be to raise awareness among parents and guardians and let them know that it is their responsibility to help bring an end to bullying.
I can't help but think that the Karen Klein bus incident might never have happened had parents stayed ahead of the curve -- looking for warning signs, monitoring their kids' behavior, training them about the right steps to take when they witness bullying as it is happening (instead of just filming it on a cell phone).
As kids head back to classrooms this month -- many of them on school buses -- it's time for parents and guardians to step in and step up to their responsibility, and help avert another year of bullying before it has a chance to begin.
I contacted Rick Shaw, the founder of Awareity -- which provides real-life solutions to real-world problems, including bullying -- and asked him to provide a few pointers for parents about how they can learn to identify if bullying is happening in their child's life, and how to stop it in its tracks. Here are seven tips from Rick:
- Communicate as often and as much as possible with your children. Pay close attention to their behavior (or their changing behavior) and how they respond and react when communicating with their friends in person and online.
- If your children seem agitated, depressed or bothered when texting or communicating online, ask them if they have observed cyberbullying or been a target of cyberbullying. Encourage them to talk about why they seem agitated or depressed.
- If your children have become more secluded, withdrawn, are not sleeping enough, have a different group of friends, or are suddenly struggling with grades, these are warning signs that you need ask them about.
- Ask your children if they know what to do in different bullying settings (on the bus, at school, at sporting events, away from school, online) and if they know how to report bullying incidents that they have witnessed.
- Schools cannot prevent what they don't know about. So encourage your children to report bullying and other student safety issues whenever they see them, so that school personnel can proactively intervene and prevent incidents from escalating.
- Parents should contact the school to find out how they can report suspect behavior and suspicious activities. Don't be afraid to follow-up with the school to see what actions were taken, and to ensure that the situation is not escalating. Talk to your children to see if they trust that their school is responding to the situation (and not making it worse).
- Parents should make sure they set an example for their children to follow: If they treat every person with respect and hold themselves and their children accountable for their actions, we can create a safer environment for everyone.
(For more detailed information about bullying prevention strategies, see www.TIPSprevent.com)
I hope you'll practice what Rick proposes, and pass these tips along to other parents and guardians you know. The only way we're going to find a solution to this problem is by working together.
Marlo Thomas' bullying-prevention campaign works in partnership with the Free to Be Foundation, the Ad Council, Facebook, AOL and the Waitt Family Foundation, as well with as the creators of the film "Bully" and the U.S. Department of Education. The resource for the campaign is stopbullying.gov.