The bullied bus monitor: Are we doing too much?

Jun 22, 2012

Karen Klein, the bus monitor from Greece, N.Y. caught on video being bullied by a group of middle school kids, will now be compensated more than $400,000 for the emotional abuse she endured.

Do you think Karen Klein should be receiving thousands of dollars for her troubles? What does the bullying of Karen Klein --and the viral response --say to you about human nature? And what should happen to the kids who bullied her?

Brad Hirschfield will live chatted with readers Friday at 1 p.m. ET about these questions and more.

- Bullied bus monitor Karen Klein: A feeding frenzy of cruelty
- Karen Klein Indiegog vacation fund rakes in $500K
Is it time for a new era of decency?
- Karen Klein: Why are people giving money to bullied bus monitor?

Millions of views, more than half a million dollars donated, death threats.  The story of Karen Klein and the "bus bullies" who verbally abused her has captured the attention of a nation.  Why?


How do we make sense of the grotesque things these otherwise normal kids said to a totally innocent woman?  How should they be punished?  Is punishment even the issue?  Does it really make sense to offer Ms. Klein half a million dollars? 


What's going on here?  Let's get started.

Do you think, perhaps, those who donate are not attempting to put a price tag on the abuse, but making a statement of apology on behalf of society? And, if the goal is to rehabilitate these kids into compassionate human beings, what do you think of the punishment we as society are dishing out to them (as in death threats, online comments, etc.)?

If that is the donors motivation, then they are badly misguided.  "Society" does not need to apologize, the kids do, and two of them have issued statements to that effect.  It's not nearly enough, but it is a start.


What I think you may be onto however, is quite important.  People want to restore their confidence in human decency, a confidence badly shaken by the awful video of the kids abusing Klein.  One way of restoring that confidence is through the performance of acts which give evidence that in the face of cruelty, we can argue decency back into credibility with acts of compassion and generosity.  It's actually a quite beautiful impulse.


The people who have threatened these kids lives are simply doing to the kids what the kids did to Klein, and they need to know that.  If they hate what those kids did, then they should take a look in the mirror and work on the person they see when they do so.


Finally, I would caution you about your claims regarding what "we as a society are dishing out".  "We" are not doing anything, at least in that regard -- specific people are.  Interestingly though, like the bullies themselves, and those who are donating to the website set up for Klein, you too seem drawn to the idea of group behavior.

What the boys did was horrible. But where were the authority figures on the bus? Wasn't she supposed to be an authority there? Why was a hearing-impaired woman assigned to monitor a busload of students? Why did not she have a whistle and/or stand up and tell the bus driver what was going on? Why did not the driver just stop the bus and call for more authority figures?

You mean like an angry parent turning around on a family car trip and threatening to pull over?  And then what?  Arrest the kids?  Leave them by the side of the road?  I don't think so.


But you are correct that Klein was in a position of authority and failed in that regard.  Let alone, why kids that age need a monitor on the bus to begin with?  Was it because of how they had been treating each other?  If so, then Karen Klein was not the right person for the job.  She couldn't respond on her own behalf, so what could she have done for others?


Of course, none of the matters when dealing with what the kids did to her.  She was a totally innocent victim.  The other issues are for another time.

I like that you pointed out the crowd dynamic at play with both the bullies and the Internet response, because it's a very interesting phenomenon, especially in the context of this one story. I will say, though, that charitable donations are always susceptible to "Couldn't that be used for something else?" scrutiny. And while I agree that, yeah, half a million dollars (and growing?) is an outsized sum for one incident, that large sum came from a large number of people who each had their own reasons for giving. I might think that there is a "better" use for that money, and so might you, or my coworker, but each of our ideas of what would be more suitable will differ. So is it possible to make a judgment on the appropriateness of the response due to its sheer size?

Is it possible?  Sure, I am doing so!  Am I correct?  I think so, but I could be wrong.  The proportionality argument is really not central to my concern about needing to be more self-aware as regards our susepibility regarding following crowds and doing things simply because others are doing them also.  That tendency is a part of our human make up.  We are social beings.  But we must also be self-aware decision makers who are not totally dependant on the will of the crowd.

Though Ms. Klein went through a horrific and daunting experience, the money she is receiving could go to better causes. This problem needs to be solved by the school and the school bus operators so that the workplace for drivers is a not a hostile environment AND it is a safe environment for students. What actions is the school taking to ensure that this does not happen again.

The school has had very little to say, and that too is unaccpetable.  It's not that they are to blame, but when something terrible happens, even if only a few are guilty, all are responsible -- at the very least, for learning from what happened and puting systems in place to keep it from happening again.

School bus would be safer with seatbelts and the kids would be better prepared to survive a crash. They put a monitor on the bus. We had them on field trips and the kid in the back of the bus had a bottle of liquor, so the insults were drunken insults. I would of just given the monitor a bottle and said sorry for your troubles. Have a drink on me!

The only reason I am responding to your ridiculous comment is that I fear you may actually be serious. 


While this story is hardly the end of the world, even for Ms. Klein, assuming that she is i reasonable mental health, it is a stark reminder of the ease with which otherwise normal people can do terrible things to each other.  That demands more of a response than a shot and a pat on the back, I would say. 

Punishment is no good unless learning happens. Apologizing is the first step and I believe that these students should work with Ms. Klein. A lady of 68 probably needs her car washed, laundry done, her bus cleaned, grass cut, etc. and other acts of kindness to replace their cruelty. I think people responded because at 68, she is old enough to be a grandmother. If my $5.00 donation helps, "Grandma" who should be enjoying retirement so be it, may be also the thought process. I also think Ms. Klein's response to not go after the students after their horrible behavior speaks volumes about the type of honorable person she is. I think this may have also prompted donations to her, too. When slapped, Ms. Klein turned the other cheek. My 2 cents.

Punishment that is part of learning?  We agree totally!  Service to the one you have harmed as part of the response?  The obligation to help restore the person you have broken?  I could not agree more!


The fact that Ms. Klein "turned the other cheeck" though is something about which I am not so sure.  I think that this poor women is simply paralyzed.  I mean it's all well and good not to lash out at the kids now, but she was totally unable to respond when they were abusing her.  I don't blame her for that, but neither would I celebrate her inability to respond.  That is NOT turning the other cheeck -- a New Testament teaching which is almost certainly about non-violent resistance, NOT about offering no resistance whatsoever when bad things are done.

I guess the people are going to pay for that. Who's going to pay for the people? The kids, with interest on the debt compounding. She could of avoided that by avoiding the little terrors or by wearing stereo headphones. Music's still free.

So you think that as long as she had not heard the horrible things that were said, there would be nothing wrong with what happened?  You think that people venting murderous rage is no cause for concern, even if they are children? 


The reason this story is so big is that it is not simply about Karen Klein.  It's about the disgust we feel when forced to confront the human propensity to get swept away in a crowd -- be it for bad, as with the kids on the bus, or for good, as with the donors to the Klein website.

These children should be made to apologize, first privately, then on camera. They should then do some kind of community service work, preferably something to do with garbage. Doesn't paying out a financial award to this women encourage more of these incidents? Someone could even conspire to "set up" such an incident and everyone splits the loot later?

Although I admire your creativity, let's not go overboard with the conspiracy theories -- especially ones relating to things which have not yet happened!


The idea that the apology will need to be as public as the bad acts for which the kids must apologize though is spot on.  Big acts of badness demand even bigger acts of goodness to offset them.


Personally, I would like to see the kids be responsible for writing "thank you" notes to each and every donor.  Over and over again, they would confront the generous impulse which their cruelty evoked.  They would see which is really the way of being in the world which commands the greatest attention and respect -- not to mention profit!

1.  The Website total has crossed the $500,000 mark!  I actually find that to be both beautiful AND disturbing.


2.  A major air carrier (I refuse to be part of their add campaign) has offer Klein and 9 guests free passage and attendance at a major theme park.  I'll let you all figure out which one.

In some ways yes, but I think that for so long people have felt pretty helpless about being able to stand up for "the little guy" whether it be the elderly, the poor, GLTB communities, the disenfrancised, the lowly employee trying to form a union. It seems that more and more, the bully, the boss, the wealthy, the powerful, the politicians, are riding rough-shot over the rest of us and the only way we can fight back is through social meedia and our verbal & financial support. These boys did a horribly mean thing, I don't think it is a capital offense and certainly do not condone anyone threatening them of their families. It is a teachable moment and I hope that all parents can use this to shime a bright light on what the phrase "humanity" means. Not to mention taking a moment to teach the meaning of respect, empathy, kindness, and finally yes, forgiveness.

Yes, the acts of generosity are a way of re-empowering ourselves, and that is both important and sweet. But, at the level at which this is ocurring, it's also a little weird and largely about reassuing ourselves, not actually addressing the problem.  There are plenty of things whcih can be done in the face of verbal abuse, and people need to know that, to learn the skills to respond, and to see those who do respond, be properly honored for doing so.


As to forgiveness, that is Ms. Klein's, and only Ms. Klein's role -- at least in terms of the hurt done to her -- and frankly, I am not going to be the one to say that she must forgive the kids.  That's not my place, and it's not your either.


For you, me, and anyone else upset by what the kids did -- upset enough to feel angry at them even though they are strangers -- we have to think about how to forgive them (assuming that they properly seek forgiveness) for having upset our sense of decency.  And given that there was little material damage done in that regard, I think that they should be forgiven -- again, assuming the proper contrition and penance.

I am sure that the kids that did this to her are now getting their fair share not only from the local community, but also pretty much around the country. The part of this that amazes me, of course, is that in this techonological age of camera phones, YouTube, etc, that people of any age actually think that they can get away with this without consequences! I mean, today's tweens are tomorrow's political leaders -- which is why it is even more important to emphasize "do unto others as you would have them do unto you." I do believe the kids that did this will pretty much be feeling the effects now for the rest of their lives, and probably serves them right.

No consequences?  I would say this has been pretty consequential, wouldn't you?  And for the record, it was the kids who first went public with the video by posting it to their own Facebook page.


If what you mean is that in any given moment, we are all suseptible to forgetting that our actions in the moment have far greater impact than we often imagine, then yes, that is noteworthy.  Of course, that has nothing to do with technology.  Technology just allows more of us to share in the stories, and to so more quickly.

If Karen Klein was being compensated to the tune of $400,000, then I would say that she is being overcompensated. But she is not being compensated -- instead she is receiving the money as a gift (or rather, a collection of gifts). The gifting has an expressive quality, in that the givers are sending a message of outrage regarding the abuse that she received, which is a more severe form of the sort of abuse that a lot of other people have experienced. I don't have any problem with any of this -- she didn't behave badly in any way, and people can spend their money any way they wish.

Of course people have a right to do as they wish with their own money, but having the right to do something does not guarantee that doing it is the right thing to do.  That's the nature of freedom and of a free society.  We actually safeguard people's right to do certain things that are not right, or at least not wise.


While the impulse to give with abandon in the face of hatred expressed with abandon, is both beautiful and powerful, that impulse must me expressed wisely.  My concern here is NOT withKlein's "undue" enrichment".  My concern is that the way people are responding is as mindlessly crowd-driven as the way in which her tormentoers behaved.

I also think this situation is a wonderful learning opportunity for everyone. I showed the video to my 13-year-old daughter who was in tears at the end, and we discussed what she would/could have done if she were in that situation. The "bullying programs" they have at schools are extremely lame and don't, in my opinion, do anything to solve or mitigate bullying. Real-life examples like this have a far greater impact on kids.

I think you are right on pretty much all counts. 

I feel as if every time there is a similar news event in which something bad happens to an individual and there's an outpouring of support, there's an immediate backlash along the lines of "Why him/her? Don't you know this is an issue that effects many other women/children/men, etc.?" I get that these stories trigger our sense of fairness which causes the backlash, but this perspective misses a fundamental part of human nature, which is that it is difficult to evoke an emotional response in the abstract. You can intellectually agree that bullying, child abuse, stalking (fill in the societal problem here) is a tragic problem, but it is often not until a specific face is tied to a problem that we really feel moved to action. I wish that we could turn the conversation from pushing back against what is, I think, a natural part of being human, to the more productive "How do we highlight more individuals affected by this?" so that we can have a greater impact overall. Kind of like that old story about the man tossing starfish into the sea and concluding with "It matters to this one." Personally, I find it reassuring that amidst all of the gloom and doom of the news, we have these examples of compassion and concern; makes me feel better about humanity in general.

I am glad that you feel good.  I am also curious.  Did you happen to contribute to the cause?


My response is hardly a backlash against anything.  It is simply a plea for greater awareness of the herd dynamics that can take over in these moments, especially in light of the technological capacity we possess.


You are surely correct that causes, when discussed in the abstract, are very hard to care about, especially in any sustained way.  People, however, are another matter.  That in and off itself should encourage us regarding the human condition -- we intuitively care more about real people thanwe do about abstract ideas.


Given all of that, it may be that the website established should stop taking in dollars and start recording stories -- a kind of national database in which one could sign up to send a kind word to a verbally abused individual.  Just a thought.

I would ask that some of the donations (at this point) be redirected to other causes. I think it is wonderful that many are moved to help Ms. Klein. I'm not amazed nor do I think it is wrong. Perhaps Ms. Klein will also feel to donate to a few charities after she receives the funds. I would like to know what the parents of these kids feel. Where does this behavior come from? Do they see/hear violence and harsh behavior at home? I think a lot of parents demonstrate in such ways and their children learn it right at home. Our society in general has lost a sense of respect for self and others. It scares me that it will get worse.

Let's be careful about these "our society" has gone to hell in a handbasket claims.  Truthfully, the fact that we even have bullying programs inidcates that we are actually becoming more, not less sensitive -- at least aspirationally so.


This is where the technology piece comes in.  It's not that we are so much worse than we have every been, it's that we are so much more aware of that which so many more people do.

So many more comments and questions, but both time and my fingers have reached their respective limits.  As always, thanks for your mnay wonderful comments and thoughtful questions.


Don't forget that we can continue this conversation if you find me on facebook and follow me on twitter @bradhirschfield.


'Til next week,


In This Chat
Brad Hirschfield
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is an author, radio and TV talk show host, and President of CLAL-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. His On Faith blog, For God's Sake, explores the uses and abuses of religion in politics and pop culture. He wrote "You Don't Have To Be Wrong For Me To Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism." Named as one of the nation's 50 most influential rabbis in Newsweek, and one of the top 30 "Preachers and Teachers" by, he is the creator of the popular series, Building Bridges, airing on Bridges TV, and co-host of the weekly radio show, Hirschfield and Kula: Intelligent Talk Radio. For more information see
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