Karen Klein and the Strange Nature of Bullying

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What Women Really Think
June 22 2012 10:20 AM

The Case of Karen Klein, Bullied Bus Monitor, Proves that Bullying Isn't Personal

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School bus, mobile bullying site.

Photo by FREDERICK M. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images

One of the most striking things about the abuse of 68-year-old school bus monitor Karen Klein by middle-schoolers—aside from the shocking level of the abuse itself, and the incredible attention and support and money she’s garnered in the aftermath—is what it teaches us about how bullying works. The online videos of Klein’s treatment at the hands of her adolescent charges in Greece, a town in upstate New York, are pretty hard to watch. But they’re proof of the wisdom your parents once offered you, when you were a teary-eyed 11-year-old booed by soccer teammates, or taunted at the school dance: It isn’t about you, sweetheart. It’s about them.

Libby Copeland Libby Copeland

Libby Copeland is a writer in New York and a regular Slate contributor. She was previously a Washington Post reporter and editor for 11 years. She can be reached at libbycopeland@gmail.com.

How can bullying not be personal? It is and it isn’t. If you’re one of the few who hasn’t seen the main video, “Making the Bus Monitor Cry,” that’s probably for the best. Klein, a grandmother reportedly paid something like $15,000 a year to sit on the school bus and watch over the kids, struggles mightily to diffuse and ignore a group of boys who grow progressively more cruel, making fun of her weight and what they assume is her poverty. They call her vulgar names and suggest she got her purse on layaway. One boy jabs her with a book, like she’s a petting zoo animal. At one point, the mild-mannered monitor tells the boys, “Unless you have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” and she is told to “Shut the f--- up.” A student asks her if she is sweating. “I’m crying,” she responds, and a kid shouts triumphantly, “Yeah she probably misses her box of Twinkies!”

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The video doesn’t reveal how the bullying started, but the way it escalates demonstrates how little it has to do with Klein, and how much with the dynamics of adolescent groups. Middle-school mob behavior requires rather little to be ignited, just some sign of weakness—in Klein’s case, it was hearing aids, a hefty body and a mild manner, but she could just have easily been replaced by an effeminate boy, or a too-tall girl with an awkward manner. If the victim is trapped and unable or unwilling to meet the group’s aggression with equal force—a tall order for a kid and, as this video shows, for an adult, too— the bullying will quickly feed on itself, becoming a vehicle for one-upmanship and status. Responsibility is diffused across the group, and cruelty is normalized by virtue of the fact that everyone else is doing it.

In the aftermath of Klein’s mistreatment, thousands have been outraged. The online fund to send her on vacation had raised $225,000 by Thursday afternoon, as Torie posted; as of Friday morning the total was closer to $475,000. It is as if all of those who were once bullied (and maybe some of those who once were bullies) want to prove those bad apples wrong, prove that human nature isn’t so dark. And a few of the boy bullies have now apologized to Klein in statements, with one calling himself “disgusted” by his own behavior.

But the greatest antidote to what happened to Karen Klein has been Karen Klein herself. She gets the last word, which bullied people rarely get unless they go postal. In interviews, she has conducted herself with dignity and calm, an attitude that suggested to me, at least, that she understood that this wasn’t about her. The kids are OK one-on-one, she told one interviewer, but get them together, and “that’s when the trouble starts.” She has said she’s unlikely to press charges, describing herself as not “vindictive.”

“It made me feel really terrible,” said Klein, whose son reportedly committed suicide years ago, in an interview with Matt Lauer. “But I will get over it. I’ve gotten over everything else.”

The greatest injury of group cruelty, the lasting part, is the way it makes you feel about yourself, the way being singled out makes you feel you did something wrong. Some of us blame ourselves, assuming that if we can figure out what we did to provoke the cruelty, we might be able to prevent it from happening again. Bullied kids, pay attention to the case of Karen Klein, the kindly bus monitor. If it could happen to her, it could happen to anyone. It isn’t your fault.

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