June 23, 2012 · 7 Comments
By Marie Burns:
In today’s New York Times, Jennifer Preston writes,
About $600,000 has been raised online this week for a 68-year-old school bus monitor from upstate New York after a cellphone video showing a group of boys on the bus brutally taunting her spread quickly on the Internet. The monitor, Karen H. Klein, of Rochester, who drove a bus for the nearby Greece Central School District for 20 years before taking her current job three years ago, was sitting in the back of the bus on Monday afternoon when seventh-grade boys began pelting her with vile remarks and one profanity-laced insult after another about her weight, her hearing aid and her sweat glands.
On Thursday, Preston wrote a post for the Times‘ “The Lede,” in which she wrote that the cellphone videographer was one of the four students who was harassing Klein. In other words, the kid – who is evidently 12 or 13 years old – thought his behavior was pretty cool. As Preston reported, the cellphone video “found its way to YouTube on Tuesday, titled, ‘Making The Bus Monitor Cry,’ where it has surpassed 3.9 million views. The video prompted outrage around the Internet….” Preston writes today that three of the four students have since apologized in statements to Ms. Klein.
In his New York Times op-ed column today, Charles Blow writes that the bus incident is “a remarkably apt metaphor for this moment in the American discourse…. This kind of behavior … stretches to the upper reaches of society – our politics and our pulpits and our public squares.” Blow attributes this tendency to bully to the “upending” of “the majority-minority paradigm” which is “making many people uneasy…. Women are under attack. Hispanics are under attack. Minority voting rights are under attack. The poor are under attack. Unsurprisingly, those doing the attacking in every case are from the right.”
O-k-a-a-a-y. So let’s just stipulate that bullying is bad and that in most circumstances, polite discourse is preferable – and more persuasive – than name-calling or threatening harangues. But maybe Blow should take a deep breath. Or read William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, which was published in 1954. Bullying – especially by 12- and 13-year-olds – is not news. Nearly every one of us who has made it through junior high school has been bullied or has bullied others. For millions of young people, especially but not only boys, some sort of anti-social aggressiveness seems to be a right of passage. The lovable Dick Cavett has written several New York Times op-ed posts in which he fondly reminisced about his schoolboy pranks – none of them nearly as awful as the Klein incident, but nothing he would get a Boy Scout badge for, either. Or think of the not-so-lovable Mitt Romney, who in 1965 led a gang of bullies to physically assault a fellow-student. Million of Americans – no doubt including some of those who expressed outrage at the schoolboys’ treatment of Klein – will vote for Romney to lead the country. Never mind that his entire campaign platform is a plan to oppress the vast majority of Americans in service of a privileged few, including, of course, himself. Now, that is bullying. No “profanity-laced insults” required.
So – contra most other commentators and the general public – I want to raise another issue related to this incident. Rather than going big, as Blow did, and seeing the incident as symptomatic of larger societal problems, I’ve gone small (as I’m sure some of you will agree). My question is,
What was Karen Klein doing?
Klein’s job title is “school bus monitor.” I don’t know exactly what her job description is or precisely what her duties are, but I think we can guess: her job is to keep rowdy kids in line so the bus driver is not distracted from her primary responsibility: transporting students safely to and from school. Most people found the bullying video disturbing because of the way the boys behaved. I did, too, but I found Klein’s inaction even more disturbing.
Klein and I are about the same age – though of course I look 28, not 68. I know beyond a shadow of a doubt that whether or not I was a school employee or just an adult observer, I would not have put up with the harassment Klein received without pushing back. Hard. Moreover, if a gang of teenaged bullies had got the best of me, which is not implausible, I would have reported the attack to appropriate authorities. I have taught junior high school as a substitute teacher. Not surprisingly, a few kids tried to bully me. They did not get far. I never got angry, never got hurt, never had to turn the kids in to the principal – because as an adult I knew how to turn the tables on junior high kids. Kids who tried to pull stunts on me quickly found themselves the class laughingstocks. Putting down the class bully is an easy way for a substitute teacher to gain control of a whole classroom and turn it back into the learning center it is supposed to be.
Maintaining discipline is – unfortunately – part of a teacher’s job. Klein of course is not a teacher. Instead, her only responsibility is maintaining discipline. Klein didn’t just fail at her job. I would not fault her for that. A single adult cannot always get the best of a gang of kids. But Karen Klein didn’t even try. She sat there like a bump on a log for ten minutes while four boys harassed her. Indeed, Klein appears to think her inaction was laudatory. In this video where Klein discusses the incident, she tells the interviewer, “I was just sitting there minding my own business.” Klein evidently does realize that remark was an admission of dereliction of duty, because after a brief pause she adds, “… and, ah, trying to keep an eye out, making sure nobody was jumping around, yelling….” But, as the bullying video shows, students were “yelling,” if not “jumping around.” They were yelling obscenities. Probably the Greece Central School District’s code of student conduct does not condone “vile remarks” and “profanity-laced insults.” Yet throughout it all, Klein – as she said – just sat there.
Apparently part of Klein’s duties include formally reporting incidents of bad student behavior. Yet Klein did not report this extended bullying session. When the interviewer (see linked video) asked why she didn’t write up the students, Klein says, “Because it was almost the last day of school. ‘Cause why bother? What good’s it gonna do? Lot of times you’d write a referral, nothing would be done about it anyway.”
Yes, that’s right, Ms. Klein. “Why bother” to do your job? Hey, the school year is almost over. Besides, other people up the line might not do their jobs, either. Filling out paperwork is so time-consuming. Clearly, Klein treats her job as a sinecure, a reward for 20 years as a bus driver. Klein may be “double-dipping,” too: as a 20-year school district veteran, she may get a pension and her wages as a supposed monitor.
I know Klein is a low-paid employee, and probably many people cut her slack for that. But there is more to even a lousy job than just showing up. And showing up is all Klein did. She reinforces the negative stereotype of public employees. Especially because of her windfall, she should retire from the job she doesn’t do. She is an embarrassment to the school district, not because she was a victim, but because she failed to try to stop her victimization. Raise your hands, kids, if you think Karen Klein ever stopped those same boys when they bullied other students on the bus. My guess: she “just sat there, minding her own business.”
The upside of the incident, as reported by Stacy Khadaroo in the Christian Science Monitor, is that “school administrators may now be more inclined than ever to take seriously drivers’ reports of taunting, sexual harassment, and other forms of bullying against kids and adults.” Khadaroo writes that “better training is making its way to thousands of bus drivers and monitors across the country.” She cites a program by a school bus transportation company that conducts workshops which “teach bus drivers how to recognize signs of bullying and strategies for responding – once they’ve stopped the bus in a safe location.”
The bad news, it appears Karen Klein received similar training. Khadaroo writes, “Peter Mannella, executive director of the New York (State) Association for Pupil Transportation, [says] The roughly 50,000 drivers and 10,000 monitors in New York State have received antibullying training developed by state education officials and his group.” The Klein incident, Mannella says, is “prompting people in his organization to ask, ‘What are we missing in training that might have helped in that situation?’”
Karen Klein said she would welcome a written apology from the students who harassed her. Yesterday, though, Klein’s daughter said Karen Klein was not ready to forgive the bullies. Those of us who expect public employees to do their jobs would welcome an apology from Karen Klein. And, heck, I’ll be more than ready to forgive her. But I do hope she doesn’t go back to work. The taxpayers in the Greece Central School District paid her to help protect schoolchildren from bullies. The kids need and deserve that protection. So far, the evidence suggests they’re not getting it. Somebody will have to monitor the monitors.
Marie Burns blogs at RealityChex.com