Abuse of bus monitor stirs strong reaction

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The verbal abuse by middle school students of 68-year-old Karen Klein, a school bus monitor in western New York, is difficult to watch. The 10-minute video was filmed by a sympathetic student Monday and uploaded to the Internet on Tuesday.

By Wednesday, Ms. Klein's humiliation had been viewed with sorrow, pity and outrage around the world. The video shows Ms. Klein, a grandmother of eight, enduring taunts about her weight, her socioeconomic class and her hygiene because she had the nerve to sweat during her ordeal. The youths even tease her about wanting to sexually abuse one of them.

In the video, the longtime employee of the Greece Central School District near Rochester is literally prodded and poked by several students who try to goad her into responding to their relentless insults. Because she wears a hearing aid, she didn't hear a lot of the things that were captured on the cell phone video.

Still, Ms. Klein heard enough to know that the children who rode the bus to and from Athena Middle School with her every day held her in contempt. It was the kind of visceral, churning contempt that drives some kids to suicide when they're the focus of that level of bullying.

Despite being reduced to tears by the adolescent rabble, Ms. Klein did not report the incident to the school district. Because she needs her $15,000-a-year job, she found herself putting up with daily affronts to her dignity. It was a mercy, in a way, that she couldn't hear most of what the kids were saying about her.

There's a passage in the Old Testament where the stoning of rude and rebellious children is sanctioned by God. Any prescription for a civil society taken from the book of Deuteronomy is over the top by today's standards, but there are a few citizens who would love the option of stoning somebody else's disrespectful kids after watching the video. It is that infuriating.

In some ways, the video feels like an outtake from the film version of William Golding's "Lord of the Flies." It leaves no doubt about the depravity that even teenagers from good homes are capable of when they feel there will be no consequence for their actions. The voices of the kids are caught on tape being profane, menacing and disrespectful of not only Ms. Klein's authority, but her humanity.

What the tape doesn't reveal is how many kids were on the bus and how many sat out Ms. Klein's hazing session because they were frightened by their classmates' actions.

We don't know if there was a silent majority who looked on with horror. We don't know if there was a fearful minority too petrified to come to Ms. Klein's aid because they feared the sadism of classmates who didn't mind reducing an adult to tears.

It could be socially disastrous to stand up to a clique of teenagers today, especially if they've clearly demonstrated a lack of empathy. Even though the school year is ending, everyone is aware that bullying can continue all summer long through social media if a kid wants to get out of line by coming to the aid of a bus monitor. Still, defying bullies is a character-defining moment in every child's life that shouldn't be avoided.

Other than the young man who shot the video with the express intent of exposing the sadism of his classmates, no one stepped forward to defend Ms. Klein. We should all feel ashamed that it is easier for kids to live with the weight of their personal cowardice than to do something to defuse bullying when they see it.

It doesn't bode well for our civilization to raise a generation of citizens who feel brutalized into silent, stifling conformity in the presence of another person's humiliation. There's something appalling about the fact that YouTube has been more responsible for getting justice for Ms. Klein than the belated actions of the school district.

The one bright spot in this episode is a fundraising campaign by sympathizers, intended to raise $5,000 over 30 days to send Ms. Klein on a vacation. In just a couple days, the website campaign (located at www.indiegogo.com, which also has the video of the bus incident) has raised more than $300,000. The overwhelmed and grateful bus monitor has more than enough to afford to retire.

The kids who tormented Ms. Klein will be the object of earnest commentary about the death of empathy for a long time. They deserve some short-term scorn, but even if they're too stupid to apologize sincerely right now, there's no point in symbolically stoning them for long.

They're still kids, after all.


Tony Norman: tnorman@post-gazette.com; 412-263-1631; www.twitter.com/TonyNormanPG.


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