8 July 2012

Ageism and Karen Klein: the school bus monitor incident in Greece, NY

The You Tube video of bus monitor Karen Klein, of Greece, NY, has been seen by over a million people (Karen Klein Bus Monitor video, 2012). The event made her a celebrity (see Bullied bus monitor Karen Klein, June 26, 2012). I have included mention of relevant articles and documents here – a point or two from each one – and my own views. Links to articles follow, listed alphabetically, by title.

On Monday June 18, while accompanying students on a school bus, Klein was harassed, through verbal demeaning and rude language, by four 13 year old Grade 7 boys (Bullied bus monitor rallies, June 23, 2012) Another student on the bus recorded the incident in a video lasting ten minutes, which was uploaded to You Tube, going viral.


The incident raises many questions, about society, teenagers, bus monitors, not to mention the use of it in US politics to attempt to sway readers over to the Republican party, which questions why America’s citizens won’t stand up for themselves (We are true Americans, July 4, 2012). Another politically-oriented article, but with a different aim, suggests that bullying in politics, and between groups vying for power, is the same kind of bullying that Karen Klein experienced (Bullies on the Bus, June 22, 2012). If one did agree with Charles Blow’s ideas, one would also have to admit that the tendency to ‘bully,’ to ‘harass,’ or to ‘scapegoat’, did not start on the bus, or with 13 year-old boys. It started somewhere else, by more knowledgeable people, with more power.

The term ‘bullying’ is used frequently in various articles, supporting the idea that this was ‘bullying.’ But few address the kind of bullying it entailed, or question this description of the harassment Klein underwent. More detail about the events as they happened on the bus, and Klein’s own views, are explained in ‘Bus Monitor Bullies,’ Jun 12, 2012. One failing, however, is that there is no further discussion on the kind of bullying it was – the groups Klein was a member of, that were targeted.

I’m not convinced this was a typical case of ‘bullying,’ as news reports tend to call it. Neither was Barbara Kay, when she wrote ‘The bus tormenters are cruel, but not bullies,’ June 27, 2012, although we don’t share the same idea about what it was exactly that happened to Karen Klein. But this was no typical case of schoolyard bullying, one child bullying another. This was young teens harassing an adult woman - 68 years of age – an employee placed there to ‘monitor’ them. Calling it bullying is a misnomer! The comments following Kay’s piece offer a sampling of perspectives. But just how many of the articles about the harassment see it as a form of ageism?

Could it be that this incident was an instinctual response by young teenagers against a group most of society seems to be expressing hostility towards, these days. Even if older people were loved and not seen as a burden, stupid, or sexually unattractive by their standards, it is fairly normal for the next generation coming up to want to take over the world and confine most of the older ones, where they can be controlled.

This makes it hard to understand Rick Salutin’s views, and his insight that “What you can eventually learn is that those impulses are inside you, but don’t have to control you” (The fourth of July and the bus monitor, July 05, 2012). Other than that, he tries to make what happened sound ‘normal’ – normal behaviour for rebellious teens.

In my response online to Salutin’s opinion, I referred to the St Patrick’s Day riot in London, Ontario, in 2012, as an example of kids exerting power over authority (1 riot, 68 suspects, 175 charges, July 6, 2012). It wouldn’t be my choice of theories to explain Karen Klein's experience, though it is probably part of what happened.

Neither does this remark by one of the teens’ parents add anything useful: "One of the boys’ dads said he was stunned by the video because it’s not how he raised his kids." (The fourth of July and the bus monitor, July 05, 2012). So if it wasn’t home attitudes, gained from banter around the family dinner table, perhaps the teens picked up these attitudes about baby boomers at school – or from online newspapers on the internet! Lillian Zimmerman, in her piece on older people, thinks it is a strong possibility, saying,

“Take a look at some of the reports we’re regularly exposed to in the media and elsewhere. Aging boomers – also known as the “grey tsunami” or the “ticking time bombs” – are seen as signs of the coming gloom and doom. We’re seduced into feeling that longevity – which simply means we live longer thanks to advances in biological and medical sciences – is a looming threat, poised to reduce our system of social welfare, including medicare – our whole economy, in fact – to penury” (Zimmerman, ‘Why we should like older people,’ Sept 16, 2011).

This bus situation, as captured by the video, involved a “confluence of factors which provided an opportunity for the 10 minutes of bullying to occur” (Psychology of Middle School Kids, June 21, 2012). John Grohol explains six contributing factors, while also mentioning the psychological factor of one the boys’ incredible capacity to be “a pro at identifying Klein’s weaknesses.”

More than once, I saw explanations for the escalation of the verbal abuse suggest that the boys seemed to waiting for, or ‘asking’ for, the adults to take charge. “When there was no reaction, they revved up further” (School-Bus Bullies: Are Adults to Blame Too?, June 26, 2012); or this one - “I think you can hear them testing the limits of what they can get away with” (Fourth of July and the bus monitor, July 5, 2012). Both of these views are simply another version of the ‘boys will be boys’ syndrome, making excuses for their bad behaviour and blaming it on their victims.

On the other hand, John Grohol writes on the subject of teens crying out for authority only that “These teens will then sometimes take advantage of such a situation when the moment presents itself” (Psychology of Middle School Kids, June 21, 2012), not that they are waiting for someone to stop them. Furthermore, in Lagace’s article, the perception is that “it is clear from that video that these students are doing everything in their power to break Klein and make her snap,” (Emotional reactions pour in, Jun 22, 2012).


Carol Di Tosti writes,

“Bullies exist because they know the system offers them impunity and the chance to ‘look strong’. If victims try to fight back, punishment usually falls on the victim along with the shame and humiliation of being labeled the provocateur” (Viral Universe More Dangerous, June 25, 2012).

Di Tosti expands on this thought in the article, explaining how our system promotes this upside-down mentality, while also delving more into the effects of social media on such boasting and getting caught.

Was the harassment a symptom of a larger problem? Most definitely. But how does one address such ganging up of like-minded individuals or groups against individuals they seem to despise? Is love and healing the answer (Are the Bus Bullies Monsters, June 22, 2012), or separation from peers, learning through informative sessions and community service? In the end, it was decided that the four boys would undergo some form of alternative program away from their regular school for a year, and do community service – with seniors (Students who bullied NY, June 29, 2012).

50Plus.com refers to the harassment as ‘elder abuse,’ Lisa Lagace saying that “The issue of elder abuse is a big one, but most people mistake it for something that happens privately between family members or at nursing homes” (Emotional reactions pour in, Jun 22, 2012). Lagace also claims that “the idea that children no longer respect their elders comes in full force when watching such a video.” The video definitely illustrates that idea, to an extent probably most people wouldn’t want to think about. But the disrespect and abuse by children is only part of it.

Abuse by families and caregivers, including organizations meant to provide care of various kinds, are another huge area. These and other forms of elder abuse committed by outsiders to the person’s own network are described in the article on the website Helpguide.org, under the headings Signs, Risk Factors, Prevention, and Help (see Elder Abuse and Neglect, June 2012).

Another suggestion to prevent such occurrences as Klein experienced was to build up the self-esteem of potential victims (Anti-bullying campaigns should build, June 25, 2012). On its own, this piece by Andrea DeMeer seems coldhearted and blaming the victim. But taken along with other suggestions, it also should be seen as being part of the solution – though not the only one as bullying is one of those things that can happen to anyone. Until it happens to you, you may not realize that.

Other responses to the event offer helpful advice, such as what she should do with her good fortune, (Financial Advice for Bullied, June 22, 2012) due to the more than half million dollars donated to her cause (Greece students who harassed, June 29, 2012).

Why give donations?

Many articles focused on the money that was donated to Mrs Klein, an amount that surpassed expectations. Here is where Canada became involved, Max Sidorov from Toronto placing Klein’s story on his fundraising website where the amount rose to over $600,000 (Guy behind bus monitor mania, June 21, 2012). Latching onto an idea expressed in a film, someone decided to ‘pay it forward’ and reward Sidorov for his effort by collecting donations for him, so far, $7,254 (Love for Max Sidorov too, 2012).

Why are people giving money to bullied bus monitor, Paul Farhi asks? (Why are people giving, June 21, 2012). He concludes that “perhaps the Internet, and a few political fundraising cycles, have taught Americans to transform sympathy, support and revulsion into transferable dollars.”

But another article suggests that people identify with Karen Klein because they feel undervalued at work (Why America Bleeds For Karen, June 26, 2012), - have empathy for her, perhaps, due to being bullied on the job, or worse yet, feel the need to make up for some past indiscretion as a bully. Perhaps, for the same reasons people donate to causes abroad rather than look at what’s going on in North America, it is easier to use donations to appease a sense of guilt, of turning away having witnessed harassing behaviour.

It appears as though Mrs Klein may have gone from being a scapegoat to a token. And yet, if she had not represented that aspect of America that exemplifies family and all that matters about the country, such as grandparenting, working and paying taxes, and just being the stereotypical older woman, perhaps all this wouldn’t have happened to her.

More on ageism, elder abuse, and scapegoating

According to Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse “Ageism can involve stereotypes and myths, or outright disdain and dislike” (Ageism, CNPEA, 2012). But does this explain the severity of the hostility shown in the video of Karen Klein? The concept of scapegoating seems apt for this incident as it involved singling out one person (although it can also be about a particular group), and the heaping of verbal insults and contempt upon the target.

‘Scapegoating and Othering’ is the title of a lesson plan for teaching purposes for Grades 8 to 10 (2012). While the information is valuable, unless readers and students change their attitudes, or are able to empathize, I don’t know how scapegoated (or bullied) individuals can come out of it any better. Such bullying or scapegoating can be directed to many groups, on the basis of age, body type, marital status, sexual preference, type of disability, class, etc.

The idea of mob mentality is part of scapegoating, as more individuals are likely to join in once one person starts by singling out one person. Tamara Avant, Psychology Department director, explains the idea of mob mentality, without naming it scapegoating or bullying, but focusing on the temporary loss of individual identity and the emotional component of joining with others to harass someone who is not one of them (Psychology of Middle School Kids, June 21, 2012). I would also suggest, thinking of her comment that it is social norms that get lost during such incidents, that it also seems as though instinct takes over, which seems a bit like the ‘nature vs nurture’ debate, though in this case, it is probably a little of both, with a temporary leaning towards the ‘nature’ side.

In 2011, Ruth Rosen wrote ‘Stop Scapegoating Baby Boomers—Remember We Helped Forge American Prosperity,’ in response to Thomas Friedman’s ‘Clash of Generations’ (2011). Although both pieces focus on the economy, with different perspectives, these examples of what people read in our society demonstrate how attitudes are formed. There have been other articles in the news that have focused on perceived intergenerational problems, minimizing class differences, and I have also written about this. Allowing things to go on the way they have been isn’t going to help our society adapt to having an increasing population of old people.

Many of the articles listed here have something to offer in the way of enlightening readers to what happened on the bus, how to think about it and what to do about it, from looking at the way people parent to recognizing the factors that lead to such incidents, and reading up on such topics as ageism and elder abuse. There is still a great more that could be said, but this review with brief analysis has been bounded by issues raised here through these articles.

1 riot, 68 suspects, 175 charges — a $500K tab. Was it worth it?
By Scott Taylor
London Free Press
July 6, 2012

Canadian Network for the Prevention of Elder Abuse (CNPEA) -- Réseau canadien pour la prévention des mauvais traitements envers les aîné(e)s
accessed July 8, 2012

Anti-bullying campaigns should build up victims
By Andrea DeMeer, QMI Agency
London Free Press
June 25, 2012

Are the Bus Bullies Monsters?
By Amy Weber
Huffington Post
June 22, 2012

Bullied bus monitor Karen Klein on her huge windfall “I don’t feel like I deserve it”
By Celebitchy
Celebrities Lives
June 26, 2012

Bullied bus monitor rallies hometown crowd
By Niamh Scallan Staff Reporter
The Star
June 23, 2012

Bullies on the Bus
By Charles M Blow, Op-Ed Columnist
The New York Times
June 22, 2012

The Bus Monitor Bullies: How to Prevent Your Kids From Acting This Way
By Lesley Kennedy
Jun 12, 2012

The bus tormenters are cruel, but not bullies
By Barbara Kay
National Post Full Comment
Jun 27, 2012

The Clash of Generations
By Thomas L Friedman, Op-Ed Columnist
NY Times
July 16, 2011

Elder Abuse and Neglect
By Lawrence Robinson, Tina de Benedictis, Ph.D., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D.
June 2012

Emotional reactions pour in for bullied bus monitor
By Lisa Lagace
Jun 22, 2012

Financial Advice for Bullied Bus Monitor Karen Klein
By Kate Rogers
June 22, 2012

The fourth of July and the bus monitor
By Rick Salutin Columnist
July 05, 2012

Guy behind bus monitor mania gets cash too as love and money flow
By Deborah Netburn
LA Times – Business
June 21, 2012

Karen Klein Bus Monitor Bullied By Students FULL UNEDITED VIDEO
Accessed July 4, 2012

Love for Max Sidorov too
Indiegogo website
accessed July 5, 2012

The Psychology of Middle School Kids Bullying a Bus Monitor
By John M. Grohol, PsyD. Founder & Editor-in-Chief
June 21, 2012

Scapegoating and Othering (pdf file)
By Jeff Gagnon, Media Awareness Network
Department of Justice, Canada

The School-Bus Bullies: Are Adults to Blame Too?
By Erika Christakis
Time - Ideas
June 26, 2012
http://ideas.time.com/2012/06/26/the-school-bus-bullies-are-adults-to-blame-too /

Stop Scapegoating Baby Boomers—Remember We Helped Forge American Prosperity (response, Friedman’s ‘Clash of Generations’ http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/17/opinion/sunday/17friedman.html?_r=2
By Ruth Rosen
CityWatch, Vol 9 Issue 78
Sept 29, 2011

Students who bullied NY school bus monitor suspended for one year
Global News
June 29, 2012

Views on bullying lack real understanding
By Donald D’Haene, Special to QMI Agency
Response to ‘Anti-bullying campaigns,’ June 25, 2012
London Free Press
June 25, 2012

Viral Universe More Dangerous For Bullies; A Haven for Victim-Bus Monitor Karen Klein
By Carole Di Tosti, Ph.D.
June 25, 2012

We are true Americans, and we will not submit
By Doug Hagmann
Canada Free Press
July 4, 2012

Why America Bleeds For Karen Klein, Bullied Bus Monitor
By Mark C. Crowley
Fast Company
June 26, 2012

Why Are Buses So Conducive to Bullying?
By Jeremy Stahl
June 22, 2012

Why are people giving money to bullied bus monitor?
By Paul Farhi
Washington Post – The Style Blog
June 21, 2012

Why we should like older people
By Lillian Zimmerman
Globe and Mail
Sept 16, 2011