An invitation for kids to be cruel

The humiliation of New York bus monitor Karen Klein reveals a great deal about the erosion of adult authority.

Nancy McDermott

Topics Politics

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By now, millions of people across the world have viewed ‘Making the Bus Monitor Cry’. For those of you who haven’t, it is a video of a slew of vile, verbal abuse against 68-year-old Karen Klein, a bus monitor from Greece, New York, from four 13-year-old boys. It is hard to know what is more shocking: the methodical cruelty with which the children ply their insults; or the grandmother’s inability to respond effectively to the humiliating onslaught.

Childish cruelty is allegedly old news, but, recorded and broadcast across the world, it is still jarring. Not only is the video footage completely at odds with the way we usually like to regard children – as innocents in need of protection – but their willingness and, more disturbingly, their success at targeting an adult is unsettling.

Yet, in reality, the video tells us less about the nature of children and more about the erosion of adult authority in American society. When adults are too timid to enforce basic standards of behaviour in public, and when other adults (in this case, the bus driver) are willing to stand by and tolerate bad behaviour aimed at a fellow adult, it’s no wonder children run wild. The depths of this problem are nowhere more apparent than in the confused reaction to the bus-monitor incident.

Like Phoebe Prince or Tyler Clementi, Karen Klein was, we’re told, another victim in a nation in the grip of a bullying epidemic. So serious is this epidemic that when Klein’s supporters gathered at Apollo Middle School, vowing that ‘the bullying ends today’, the school district responded by announcing that its Bullying and Violence Response Team would spearhead the investigation into what happened on the bus.

How this situation came to be is a matter for speculation. Writing in Slate, Jeremy Stahl argues that the problem is buses, because the enclosed space and enforced togetherness creates a mob mentality that spurs bullies, now part of a ‘pack’, to ‘ask their victims repeated questions and try to force some kind of response’. Charles Blow, writing in the New York Times, linked the incident to US political culture: ‘[It is] a remarkably apt metaphor for this moment in the American discourse in which hostility has been drawn out into the sunlight.’ He claims the boys represent ‘that part of society that sees the weak and vulnerable as worthy of derision and animus’. He goes on to identify bullying with members of the Republican Party, who ‘hiss and taunt’ and ‘tease and intimidate’ their opponents, all in an effort to ‘maintain primacy through predation’.

These responses to the Karen Klein incident, from the impulse to label what happened as bullying to the opportunist attempt to link it to the Republican Party, betray a real confusion, not just about the nature of bullying but about adulthood itself. ‘Bullying’ is most often understood as a situation in which a powerful person or a group behaves aggressively towards someone with less power. This hopelessly broad definition might apply to anything from international affairs to hockey, but even by these standards, what occurred on the school bus was not bullying.

It is easy to forget in an age when so many adults find it hard to keep children under control that adults are inherently more powerful than children. Adults bear both rights and responsibilities for making and acting on their own decisions. Children, in contrast, have no real autonomy. To the extent that they have any limited independence, it is entirely conditional on the adults in their lives. And rightly so: children lack both the experience and the maturity to be held legally or morally accountable for their actions. Although we all hope children will learn to behave responsibly, we should be under no illusions as to their capacity to assume responsibility in the same way that adults do.

To suggest that adults like Karen Klein are capable of being bullied by children represents an abdication of the responsibilities of adulthood itself. In situations like the one on the bus, the individuals in charge derive their power to protect children and to keep them in line from all adults. When solidarity between adults is strong, it doesn’t much matter if someone like Karen Klein is not personally authoritative because kids understand that they will still be held accountable by the other adults in their lives: teachers, parents, etc. In this case, Klein was left on her own, in the first instance by the bus driver, and then by the school. The boys taunting her seemed confident that there was little possibility of being held accountable by anyone, let alone by Klein herself.

What happened on the bus was misbehaviour of the most extreme kind, escalated, at least in part, by Klein’s inability to respond effectively. And yet, some people insist on portraying her treatment as some sort of crime. According to Greece police captain Steve Chatterton, his department has received hundreds of calls urging it to prosecute the boys. And the boys involved have received death threats. Ironically, it is Klein herself who has been a voice of reason. She does not want the boys to be prosecuted, and she does not like the way the boys and their families have been harassed. She thinks they should be punished because ‘if they aren’t, other kids are going to think they can do the same thing’. That’s the key.

The seventh graders who taunted Klein did not do it because they lacked empathy or awareness of bullying, or because they were overcome by a claustrophobic mob mentality, or because they are worse than children anywhere else. They behaved the way they did because none of the people or institutions responsible for guiding them in their journey to adulthood set or enforced clear standards of behaviour. It is a pattern that repeats across America, not just in this little corner of New York state. The sad truth is that unless we wake up and recognise this phenomenon for what it is, and start letting children know where they stand, behaviour like that on the bus will continue.

In what is perhaps the ultimate testament to the clicktivist spirit of our age, a website set up to raise money for Klein to go on vacation has collected more than half a million dollars – enough for the 68-year-old to retire in style. A secondary fundraiser to reward Max Siderov, the man who set up the original fundraiser, has raised over $4,000. There’s even a clickable petition on for President Obama to give Klein her money for free.

Few would begrudge Klein, who takes home just under $16,000 a year, her windfall – but there is something deeply disturbing about celebrating the victimhood of an adult at the hands of children. Rather than wallowing in angst about bullying, Americans would be better off doing the adult thing: taking responsibility for keeping kids in line.

Nancy McDermott is a writer and mother based in New York.

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Topics Politics


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