Bully for grandma: School bus monitor takes the high road with abusive kids
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Most of us have a much shorter fuse than Karen Klein, the 68-year-old school bus monitor from suburban Rochester, N.Y., who endured 10 minutes of obscene, profane abuse from a handful of middle schoolers.
Grimacing my way through the video of the incident on YouTube, I felt my hands twitching from the urge to slap the seventh-grade perpetrators across their smirking faces -- hardly the recommended response, of course, but once the veneer of civilization falls away, all kinds of regrettable things can happen.
These could be kids from perfectly decent families, trying on their bully suits to see how they fit and figuring they were safe in doing so. Except that one of the other kids recorded the whole thing on a cell phone and posted it online. Busted.
Maybe Mrs. Klein just took the harassment because she wears hearing aids and couldn't make out the full force of the kids' insults. But the grandmother of eight, whose eldest son killed himself 10 years ago, did hear one of the boys say that she has no family because "they all killed themselves because they didn't want to be near you."
That one really hurt, she told CNN.
Nobody should have to put up with that kind of treatment for any reason, let alone for $15,000 a year.
Maybe Mrs. Klein was just uncommonly patient. But the thing that stands out for me is her refusal to press charges.
We live in an age of over-reaction, where "zero tolerance" means suspending first graders for bringing a toy gun to school, and where high school seniors are fined hundreds of dollars for harmless graduation hijinks.
Wrongdoers who may be inclined to apologize are told not to by their attorneys because an admission could be used against them in a lawsuit. Stupid teen behavior, like sending naked pictures of themselves to friends' cell phones, is met with criminal charges that are even dumber than the precipitating act, especially coming from grown-ups who should know better.
Not this time, though. Mrs. Klein has kept the incident in perspective. These were mean, cocky kids who deserve to be punished accordingly by their parents and the school district. She has no interest in labeling them criminals.
There are better ways to show kids the error of their ways, such as banning them from the school bus or after-school activities until they've completed an anti-bullying program or project in the community, apologized in person and made amends. Mrs. Klein has said as much, and she deserves thanks for that, not just from her harassers and their families, but from a society that needs examples of proportionate response.
All she wants, she said, is "to make sure they never do this again, to anybody."
The heartening side of this story is the support that has poured in for Mrs. Klein from all over the country and beyond. People who were outraged by the video and moved by her obvious pain sent all kinds of positive messages.
And what began as an online collection to send her on a vacation by the international crowd-funding website indiegogo.com, had raised more than $450,000 as of Friday -- enough for her to retire if she chooses.
At the same time, the teen bullies and their families are on the receiving end of another kind of outpouring: death threats.
A police captain in their hometown of Greece, N.Y., said he had custody of one of their cell phones, which had logged more than 1,000 missed calls and 1,000 threatening text messages
"He is a 13-year-old," the captain said. "That must stop."
CNN reported receiving statements of apology from two of the boys and the father of a third.
"When I saw the video, I was disgusted and could not believe I did that," the boy named Josh said. "I am sorry for being so mean and I will never treat anyone this way again."
Another one, Wesley, said he regretted his actions and "would be really mad" if someone had done the same to a family member.
And the father of a third, Luis, said, "If your friend says to bully somebody, please don't do it. We apologize to Ms. Klein. We're deeply sorry."
Meanwhile, the extremes keep pouring in. A teacher from suburban San Antonio recently decided the best way to deal with a 6-year-old bully was to instruct all the other children in the class to line up and hit him. She was rightly fired, but the lesson she taught those kids will take some unlearning.
Bullying is a tough social problem precisely because the immediate impulse is to return fire -- even though that path tends toward a scorched landscape. If we are to make real headway in this battle against bullying, cooler heads must prevail.
The bus bullies might well have been headed down the path to criminality had they not been outed by their classmate. They may not realize it now, but that student did them a great favor.
As for preventive measures, perhaps all school districts should equip bus monitors with camera phones. One recording of these aberrant behaviors is worth a thousand smacks.
First Published June 24, 2012 12:00 am