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Lord of the Flies On a School Bus: The Bullying of Karen Klein

| June 22, 2012

Karen Kline in a happier moment. (Facebook)

Karen Kline in a happier moment. (Facebook)

It’s Lord of the Flies on a school bus. Four middle school boys unrestrained by any sense of civility or compassion revert to a primitive state, savaging their prey: a 68-year-old woman, ostensibly their bus monitor. The boys taunt, insult, demean, often in language inspired by slasher movies: they speak of torturing her, eviscerating her. The only thing that may have kept them from becoming physically violent is the presence of a bus driver, or other students on the bus: witnesses, though it doesn’t appear as if either the driver or other students are concerned with the assault, which goes on for 10 minutes. The four boys have become a pack, feeding on each other’s frenzy as they exult in their cruelties.

pierre tristam flaglerlive editor's blogThe woman is Karen Klein of Greece, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester. The students are seventh graders at Athena Middle School, a middle school like any other. Klein is sitting on her own, against the window, alternately looking out, glaring at the students, or, even more painful to watch, trying to engage them in what seems to interest them, a perverted, heartbreaking sort of Stockholm Syndrome in microcosm. It only encourages them to pile on. They ridicule Klein’s gestures, taunt her with something she’d like to read, seize on the seeming poverty of her purse, on (to put it politely) the effects of her 68 years on her body, though she is the prototypical woman of advanced age we see every day in Florida. She is the norm, nor the exception. She could be any of the children’s grandmother. Or the grandmother of the very child they bullied at school that day.

“Unless you have something nice to say, don’t say it at all,” she says at one point, her arms crossed, leaning over.

A boy’s reply: “How about you shut the fuck up?”

And on they go:

“What’s your address so I can friggin’ piss all over your door.”

“You friggin’ just touched her arm flab.”

“It’s probably all stinky and smelly.”

“She probably fucking eats deodorant because she can’t afford her own food.”

“She’s going to die of fucking diabetes because she’s so damn fat.”

“You’re a troll.”

They “joke” about stabbing her in the stomach, about how “a whole value meal is going to be coming out of McDonald’s.”

They ridicule her “sweating.” She is actually crying. “She probably miss her box of Twinkies,” they say.

“Maybe she is an elephant.”

One of the boys talks about his yearbook. “She’s going to pick out which kid she’s going to rape next.”

“Karen you have herpes?”

“Why are you looking at me like that, you want to rape me?” one of the boys says.

“I’ll send you a donut, fat ass.”

“Did you get that purse on lay-away?”

“Naah, she got it in a fucking garbage can at Walgreens.”

One of the students recorded almost the whole thing and posted it to YouTube under the boastful title: “Making the Bus Monitor Cry.” The video went viral, as such things do. More than 4 million views in two days. It triggered an odd backlash. Someone set up an online fund-raiser to send Klein on vacation. The goal was $5,000. The fund raised $537,000 by Friday afternoon. There’s vindication in that, a sense of collective fury that transcends the helplessness one feels when watching the video. Klein’s Facebook page had 146 friends before the incident. She must’ve received almost 5,000 friend request since, because none are accepted anymore. There’s also a measure of disproportion, and a question. How can a bus monitor be so easily persecuted, if not for having been miscast as a bus monitor? Middle schoolers’ barbarity is not news to anyone.

The students meanwhile have seen their identities leaked. They’ve been subjected to death threats. The police in their town has had to patrol their neighborhood to protect against acts of vigilantism. And of course the global court of public opinion is weighing in. The original video amplified the offense to a world audience. The disproportion is boomeranging in spades.

There’s no question the students flirted with the savagery of Golding’s characters on their lost island. Their punishment should include reading the book. But 13 year olds are responsible for their behavior only up to a point. They’re still more than not the reflection of their homes, their school, their society. Prejudices are not yet their own. They’re trying out the prejudices they’ve witnessed the way they try out idiotic hair styles and degenerate behavior. They’re acting out the persecuting spirit that christens their daily lives. It’ll be easy to point fingers at schools. That’s the scapegoat with the most currency these days, schools being the extension of that other bugaboo of small minds: government.

But schools are not at fault here. Parents are. Parents and their prejudices, reflected in their children, or prejudices parents are too lazy to check. Not once, at any point in the assaults on Kline, does one of the children intervene to temper the mob, to cool down, to protect. It’s a quiet fear among the children, the fear of going against the grain, itself also a reflection of parental submission to that mob mentality that cheapens our culture and what we accept it to be.

Listen to the attacks: Kline’s weight, her supposed poverty, her age, even her sexuality. The most common ammunition in any bully’s bag of crud, but also a reflection of the most common prejudices of our culture. She is no different than a 13 year old they might have bullied at lunch, except for the twist of age, which to the students doesn’t make a difference. Bullying isn’t about the victim. It’s about the bullies’ cowardice, which—like compassion—is either taught or inherited more than it is inherent to a child’s sensibilities. The scene on the bus is itself a window on our culture so rich in persecutions, so poor in individual valor that dares break the mold. In that sense, even the redemptive fund-raiser on Kline’s behalf is, aside from its original creator, the result of a different type of mob mentality, however positive and joyful the outcome.

Then there’s what’s sure to follow. The inevitable post-game show. The soul-searching discussion about the whys and hows, which is never a bad thing, but also the exaggerated claims of the downfall of American civilization, the hyperbolic claims about an epidemic of bullying in schools (schools are far safer today than they were a generation ago, when bullying was more typically ignored as a rite of passage), the usual condemnations of younger people who, no matter how you slice their cruelties, could never in a billion years match their elders’ more subtle savageries, wrapped as they are in political sanctimony.

There’ll also be the parading of the children, who even now may have been hit up by savvy marketer and agents. There’ll be talk shows. There’ll be People magazine profiles. Dancing with the bullies. Almost certainly a few joint appearances between bullies and Ms. Kline on, if not an Oprah special, something approximating the national therapist’s couch. There’s money to be made here. Before it’s over Klein and the children might well want to run off to a desert island of their own.

Together, now that they’re joined for good for what remains of Klein’s life.

Pierre Tristam is FlaglerLive’s editor. Reach him by email here.

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23 Responses for Lord of the Flies On a School Bus: The Bullying of Karen Klein”

  1. Geraldine says:

    I just love your writing, Pierre. Insightful, to the point and beautifully crafted. You make me think (and hopefully many more like me). Thank you.

  2. anon says:

    I guarantee you if a kid did stand up to say something, and a fight broke out, the kid who stood up would receive the same punishment as the one who started it. That’s part of the problem.

  3. Johnny Taxpayer says:

    For, perhaps the first time, I’m not sure there is anything in this article that I can disagree with. This is a result of poor parenting. There were crappy parents 50 years ago too, the only difference is nobody had a camera to record the results and upload them to youtube.

  4. Cheryl says:

    These kids are lucky I’m not their mother. What barbarians their parents have raised. Enough said.

    • Ben Dover says:

      That`s the problem right there , parents are not allowed to punish their kids anymore , and the kids know it , I got my ass beat by the nuns in school and my parents when I got home if I acted out like that , kids today threaten their parents go ahead hit me I`ll call child services or the cops, they all need a good ass kicking and all they`re electronic devises taken away for a year, punish them like that a few times and see if they`ll do it again.

  5. Magnolia says:

    These children are behaving like this because this is what they hear the adults around them saying to one another. This language is heard in the classrooms in our schools. It is printed in our newspapers, said in our books and movies and even children’s games.

    There is no discipline anymore, there is no personal responsibility anymore, there is no achievement anymore.

    This is what our society has become, that animal society in Lord of the Flies.

  6. Liana G. says:

    Tsk. Tsk. Pierre. When my tax dollars and my income limit me to schools controlled by the gov’t, I am damn well going to blame the schools because as the school says “unfortunately when you make the decision to bring children into the world and put them in public schools these are the consequences you have to live with”. And if you think that the same kind of parents aren’t teaching in classrooms and performing other administrative functions in schools, you may want to do some investigating. They have kids in the school system too.

    School choice will give me the option to send my kids to schools that embrace and teach the same values I instill at home instead of tearing them down, and promoting their cheating,uncouth, unethical and immoral values. My kids were bullied a lot at school and on the bus. One had a water bottle thrown at her twice. I had to harrass the school to investigate. Another was beaten up by a 5th grade boy when she stepped in to stop him from bullying a little girl in kindergarten.

    I like my small minded government blaming mentality. And there are plenty of small minded people living off of my tax dollars!

  7. Maryjoe says:

    “having been miscast as a bus monitor” Yep. What was she doing there to begin with? And you can only go so far to blame the parents. Kids will often do things things in a group that their parents would be horrified at. And no, kids don’t always learn this nonsense at home.
    But.. yes, you are correct. Lots of money in a video that went viral.
    I’m assuming the school handled the situation or is that too much to ask?

  8. lefty loon says:

    These children are a product of a time in our country where parents have no means to discipline their children once they leave home for public school. Children learn these abhorrent skills from other children. Anyone who believes they will never be held accountable for their actions will do exactly as these kids have done. They are products of a failed public school system that attempts a flawed path in social engineering. There is no need for school buses or even schools. Children can be taught at home via the internet. The parents can control who they associate with and how they behave. Public schools are a cesspool and you know what you get on yourself if you swim in one of those.

  9. Clint says:

    America’s decline is speeding to the end. When you remove the values of society, you become part of the animal kingdom. So when the government removes the TEN COMMANDMENTS from schools and allows their population to do as the please because its politically correct, then you get what what you see in the news everyday….Sub-Humans with animal behavior !

    • The U.S. government, contrary to all too many misguided persons, has never adhered to the Ten Commandments. Those who repeate this falsehood don’t seem to understand the simple words that are are listed in many different ways in the many different versions of the book Christians call “The Bible.” It constantly amazes me how many people repeat and re-repeat what they seem to think the Ten Commandments represent. I know it is a waste of computer data entries to suggest that whomever makes a statement regarding the value of the Ten Commandments in society really read those ten items and see how many have been or are really codified in the laws of the United States of America. Aoso, how many of those ten are practiced by those who call themselves Christians. Probably not very many if any!

      • Klato says:

        Now…as far as the Ten Commandments are concerned. They were laws sent down from…..God…Aliens.? Pick one, anyone. The reasons are the same. The TEN COMMANDMENTS were LAWS send to BARBARIC SUB-HUMANS to turn them into a CIVILIZED SOCIETY. Take them away and you have…….ANIMALS !!!!!!!

  10. question says:

    Poor parenting is one thing. This is a whole other subset of total FAIL. These kids are saying/behaving what they see & hear at home=ignorance on a grand scale. They’re each little Xeroxs of hate.

  11. Pierre Tristam says:

    Thank you all for the comments. I was struck by Charles Blow’s column in today’s Times:

    But what, if anything, does this say about society at large? Many things one could argue, but, for me, it is a remarkably apt metaphor for this moment in the American discourse in which hostility has been drawn out into the sunlight.

    Those boys are us, or at least too many of us: America at its ugliest. It is that part of society that sees the weak and vulnerable as worthy of derision and animus.

    This kind of behavior is not isolated to children and school buses and suburban communities. It stretches to the upper reaches of society — our politics and our pulpits and our public squares.

    Whether it is a Republican debate audience booing a gay soldier or Rush Limbaugh’s vicious attack on a female Georgetown law student or Newt Gingrich’s salvos at the poor, bullying has become boilerplate. Hiss and taunt. Tease and intimidate. Target your enemies and torture them mercilessly. Maintain primacy through predation.

  12. Anonymous says:

    And these children…Are the future of this country. Enough said!

  13. Tam Tel says:

    These children are the future of America. Eeeek!!

  14. Initialjoe says:

    I am horrified, not by the bullying, but by the entire thing becoming viral and the backlashes afterwards. This is a result of that “bully” word being dragged through the mud by the press…Are you people living under a rock? I don’t know if you all remember Middle School (or even high school) but this brings back memories for me. She was basically a prime target for them (overweight, hard of hearing, old, low self esteem). I would have been more sympathetic if it was another child, but this is an adult who should have dealt with it as an adult does.

  15. The fault for such an incident really lies with school authorities. The school authorities should never have put such a woman in such a position. School buses are problamatic even under the best of circumstances. Was this person ever given any training in what the duties of a school bus monitor might be? Did she ever participate in training sessions that might have included role playing that would have provided her with some tools to handle a situation like that which occurred? Probably not. I don’t like the phrase, “kids will be kids” but the reality of the situation is that the school administration was probably not provided the time and funds by school board budgeting to train bus monitors to handle such situations.

  16. David says:

    First of all this woman should not even be a bus monitor. She can not handle it. Don’t show emotion, and don’t back down to these “wet pants” brats. Secondly, I would have told the bus driver to stop the bus and give these wet pants a choice, either shut up and separate them to another seat or throw their asses off te bus. Come on, who’s in charge here, these monkeys or the zookeeper.

  17. curran says:

    This is heartbreaking, I can not believe this and have been teaching for 27 years! Are these “students” able to take New York public transportation instead? Good luck with that!

  18. Kate says:

    There is considerable lamenting in Pierre Tristam’s column with little light as to how a resolution can be found for the problems of bullying in schools or Lord of the Flies inclinations. Is the point of the analysis to advocate that parents be the main focus when preventing bullying in the schools and broadcasts of bullying incidents be limited because the lives of victims and abusers will be interlocked? In fact, the evidence supports contrary conclusions. The video is actually a billboard advertisement for school choice, the need for more supervision in public schools and the effectiveness of accountability. Parents should not be forced to send their children to schools that do not discipline and that breed open hostility to the weak and vulnerable.

    Bullying is a learned behavior that is rare when there is full supervision and accountability. The school failed to properly supervise as is evident in the video of the sustained harassment and intimidation of a senior woman school employee by a group of teenagers on a bus owned by the school. One student spoke about using a knife on the employee. The threats of physical violence and emotional abuse that the woman encountered on her job are serious. One must question the school’s support for zero tolerance of bullying, procedures at the school for reporting bullying by students and staff and the repercussions.

    “It’s a quiet fear among the children, the fear of going against the grain, itself also a reflection of parental submission to that mob mentality that cheapens our culture and what we accept it to be,” wrote Tristam. Most young people will step up to the plate if they are in an environment that supports good behavior. Why are there many schools, including embattled inner city schools, that have environments amenable to learning and to good conduct?

    “That’s the scapegoat with the most currency these days, schools being the extension of that other bugaboo of small minds: government.” The “small minds” comment by Tristam to readers that do not agree with him reveals that he is a fan of “big government” or does not realize that public schools can abandon their responsibilities for a large range of reasons from financial to misguided priorities.

  19. Liana G. says:

    Very well said Kate.

    Well, what do you know, a reporter from the News Journal contacted me on Monday, June 25, seeking information on bullying in Flagler schools because, according to Flagler School District there were no reported incidents of bullying for the 2010 – 2011 school year.

    Really? No bullying incidents for the entire 2010-2011 school year in a district with 13,000 students? How does this school district classify bullying? Do they purposefully ignore complaints of bullying so that they do not have to document/report these cases? I do know they treat the victims like criminals, using hostile and intimidating tactics to discourage them from coming forward.

    This was how my twins described their experience when they complained to the school about being bullied on the school bus in the 2010-2011 school year. This was after they had told the bus driver who told the kids doing the bullying to stop and changed my kids’ seats. But this did not stop the bullying. Not only did my kids have pieces of mulch, pencils, and a toy soldier thrown at them, they were also called illegal immigrants and told to ‘go back to Mexico.’

    When my kids told me how about their experience reporting the incident to the school, I asked a principal of another school district if this was standard procedure. I was advised by that principal to speak with my kids’ school to register my disapproval of their handling of the situation. As for the 5th grade boy who viciously attacked my 6th grade daughter on the bus while parked on the school premises (it was during afternoon dismissal), he was only given one/two week bus suspension. This occurred back in 2009/2010 school year. The water bottle incident with my older child occurred in the same school year when she was in middle school.

    This school district either ignores bullying so they don’t have to deal with bullying, or skin tone determines how they address and handle bullying incidents. My kids are now in another school district. Great school and close enough for them to walk with dad on his way to work or take the car in inclement weather. I am looking forward to exceptional school experience here and so are my kids.

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