The School-Bus Bullies: Are Adults to Blame Too?

Yes, that poor bus monitor was horribly abused. But wasn't she hired to prevent exactly that kind of behavior?

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Bus monitor Karen Klein speaks during an interview in Greece, N.Y., on June 21, 2012. A video of four seventh-grade boys mercilessly taunting the 68-year-old Klein that went viral has turned the victim into an international fundraising juggernaut

The nation’s hearts and wallets opened last week for Karen Klein, the bus monitor in upstate New York who was mercilessly taunted by a pack of feral-minded middle schoolers. But the gold rush of online donations (more than $600,000 and a free trip to Disneyland for 10 people) leaves a slag heap of questions. When we grow tired of the bus video heard ’round the world, we might start by asking, What is a bus monitor’s role exactly?

(MORE: After Abuse Video Goes Viral, Campaign Raises Money for Bus Monitor)

It’s not victim blaming to acknowledge that Klein was both horribly abused and also hired to prevent the kind of torment she endured. It’s therefore puzzling that neither she nor the bus driver — the adults on the bus — took any measures to prevent, stop or report the atrocious behavior. Did she ever receive any training in how to manage unruly or abusive kids? Why didn’t the bus driver chime in, or stop the bus immediately, and tell the kids to straighten up? The episode wouldn’t even have come to the attention of school administrators or parents if a student hadn’t filmed and posted it. This isn’t a chain of authority that inspires confidence.

Video affords multiple interpretations, but what I saw was that the Lord of the Flies perps seemed to escalate, emotionally, as if waiting, even wanting, the adults to take charge. When there was no reaction, they revved up further. It also seemed clear that this abuse didn’t come out of nowhere but was likely the product of a dysfunctional bus culture honed over weeks or months of chronic misbehavior.

(MORE: What You Need to Know About Bullying)

I want to be very clear: I am not dismissing the horrible mistreatment. But it’s equally unfair to ignore the role of external forces in shaping the kids’ behavior on that fateful day.

For example, we know that when teachers spend time with students at lunch and recess, there are lower rates of bullying and other disciplinary problems. Yet school budgets perennially ignore areas of the school experience that aren’t directly linked to academic performance. It’s costly to add a lunch hour to a teacher contract (even though it was commonplace in previous generations), so supervision — such as it exists — is delegated to paraprofessionals and volunteers often lacking the training and temperament to work with children.

And while no one would fault American’s venerable tradition of generosity, we might also ask why Americans are so eager to write a check to an individual, even one as sympathetic as Klein, when they seem perfectly happy to watch the steady erosion of professionalism of our schools.

(MORE: The Outrageous Bus-Monitor Video: Why Kids Don’t Fear Consequences)

We need to look at our role as parents too. It’s well known that parenting shapes preteen and adolescent behavior. In fact, one of the biggest risk factors for becoming a bully is having the misfortune of being born to parents who withhold warmth or who are violent. We also know that children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely, for a variety of reasons, to be bullies.

Finally, we know that even decent people can behave monstrously when the conditions are ripe, especially when they act in groups. But here, too, we have reason not to focus only on these appalling 12- and 13-year-olds who verbally assaulted Klein. We love to pile on when we hear stories of teen mobs run amok. It seems to embody our worse fears as a society. But adults behave outrageously and with impunity in crowds too, whether destroying property after a sporting loss or looting after a hurricane. (Not to mention gang rape and murder.)

(MORE: Judith Warner: The Lesson of Jessica Barba and Her Bullying Video)

I can already hear the outrage. How can I pick on an elderly, hearing-impaired woman who was just doing her best? But blaming kids in a vacuum is not merely unproductive but also wrongheaded. The reality is that bullying has actually decreased in the past decade, and one of the main reasons is the prevalence of antibullying curriculum, antihazing policies and other measures to draw attention to the problem and involve adults.

We know, in other words, that the right kind of school environment can help to reduce harmful behaviors like the ones Klein was hired to “monitor,” so it’s disingenuous at best to place the blame entirely on the shoulders of families.

Social scientists have for centuries explored the issue of responsibility for human behavior. Is it societal structures or individual free will? A few rotten apples, or a rotten barrel? And who if not all the adults who care for children?

MORE: Cohen and DeBenedet: Have We Gone Overboard About Bullying?