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The Psychology of Middle School Kids Bullying a Bus Monitor

With over 1.6 million views at the moment, this video — filmed by one of the students who was apparently involved in the incident — shows a small group of middle school students in Greece, NY bullying Karen Klein, a 68-year-old grandmother and Bus #784’s unfortunate bus monitor.

Klein is shown crying in the video, while the kids hurl profanity and insults at her. Klein reportedly said the comment that hurt the most was when a student told her she is so ugly that her kids “should kill themselves.”

Klein’s son committed suicide ten years ago, according to Metro.

While the school district makes noises about all the kids involved facing “disciplinary action,” the question remains — how did we get here? How did this bullying situation occur, and why did it occur?

The answer is a little more nuanced than you may appreciate.

25 Comments to
The Psychology of Middle School Kids Bullying a Bus Monitor

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  1. The South Pacific song, You’ve Got To Be Taught, applies. These adolescents didn’t just commit these abuses out of the blue. They’ve been practicing and honing this expression of their taught values for a very long time. And they have found it rewarding to have done so.

    It’s also the default norm on the web. This morning, the usually anodyne webiste, Mental Floss, carried a link to a BuzzFeed site post called, A Librarian Deals With Creeps, Crazies And Husband-Beaters.

    Read the full text here:
    –brought to you by mental_floss!

    I responded at both the BuzzFeed and Mental Floss sites about that, and was myself treated with contempt, ridicule and ostracism.

    The predator/prey mentality is in play in US society. Until society doesn’t tolerate it, it will continue to flourish, and vulnerable people will continue to be attacked and to suffer real harms up to and including preventable deaths.

  2. The dad of one of these kids is a social worker/counselor at a local clinic and minored in gerontology when an undergrad. Makes you wonder if this is an otherwise good father of a bad apple or a father who focused more on self-esteem than morals.

  3. I have been writing to the media for over 10 years to talk about verbal abuse (and written papers) and am the moderator of an abused survivors’ group.

    When is society going to wake up?

    I was verbally abused for 36 years. (Wish I could get a fund started for me). I am in no denigrating what happened to Karen and think it is fabulous that people are donating to her. I would if I could, but like Karen, I am also….a senior. If it wwre up to me, I would give those teen abusers a wakeup call; community service at a senior citizens center…….

    • I agree. They should be forced to do community service at a senior citizens center. They should also be made to apologize to Karen in person. It’s nice that the money was raised but obviously something major has to be done not only in this particular community but everywhere.

  4. Maybe for their last days of middle school kids need some well-ritualized Saturnalian release. In the absence of that, they spew cruelty.

    Please explain, though, your comment “The girl in the video viciously attacks Karen because she’s a pro at identifying Klein’s weaknesses.” Am I missing this? I see and hear boys, I don’t see or hear a girl. Most or even all of the bullying comes from boys ages 12 to 13. Some of them sound like girls because they have prepubescent voice boxes.

    At about 4 mins. into the video a couple of these boys say they will go her house, urinate all over her front door, and **** and **** in her mouth. At around 6 mins one talks about stabbing her in the stomach. These remarks come from boys, partially visible at around 6 mins (and see earlier videos).

    Secondly, you adopt these kids’ perspective by saying their barbs are aimed at “weaknesses.” But what are these alleged weaknesses? They start from the fact that their victim is a working woman. They call her “poor” (financially poor) and speculate that she “lives in a trailer.” They ask what part of town she lives in. And finally they avert to a family tragedy (which she has coped with through strength). Where are children getting the idea that to be “poor” – in this case a working senior – is a weakness and that to be “fat” is to be “poor”?

    They ridicule her tears. They also ridicule her purse and her bracelet – which are not weaknesses – as signs of poverty (“How much did that purse cost? OMG she bought it at ****. Did you get that purse on layaway?” etc). This is about pervasive economic and class prejudice. It’s a kind of trash talk kids use on one another in and out of school.

    One of these young boys is seen (more clearly in a video from a previous day) in a blue Oklahoma 35 (Kevin Durant) jersey. Mass-produced, that jersey sells for around $25.These boys at 12 or 13 are already basing their (false) confidence and bravado on possession of costly gear.

    Seems to me this bullying is bound up with cripplingly shallow ideas that breed insecurity in the young, insecurity which fuels the bullying. One might guess, these children are obsessed with immature yet not inaccurate ideas of what they themselves must competitively achieve to “succeed” and be popular in the material world.

    This obsession, this anxiety, starts way outside the school bus. Among other goods and values *unequally* available in our society and on our globe, place and type of residence, type of work, style and quality of clothing, physical fitness and healthy diet are all widely referenced by many politicians, media outlets, and corporate executives to consign masses of our fellow human beings to the category of trash.

    Sadly, the kids know what the dark side of our culture is all about. They just haven’t yet mastered the rhetoric and ideology for disguising the ugliness of their warped notions of value and strength.

    • Sorry, the gender confusion was a mistake on my part.

      I gave many reasons why this bullying took place, and identifying a vulnerable adult was just one of them. I never said what Klein’s weaknesses were. But yes, kids may very well perceive poverty as a weakness. And poverty or “being poor” to a teen usually just means, “poorer than me.”

      I would not suggest or imply that being poor is a character flaw or a weakness. In fact, I believe it has the ability to build character in ways that people who’ve never experienced it can’t really begin to understand.

      • Dear Dr. Grohol,

        I work as a nanny and am just near the end of getting my BA in Psychology–behavior like this still baffles me. I think the farm animals would be extremely offended at being compared to these boys so pathetically lacking in character and having zero shame in their outrageous and inexcusable behavior (they only apologized because they were caught in the act). I have never in all my days met a farm animal that behaved so badly. The school should come down hard on these boys and their parents (and take to task the driver and the other riders as well. Jeez, did they have a robot driving the bus?. However, I don’t think they should be kicked out of school I think it’s better they stay where they are known and recognized in the school and town they brought shame on instead of being able to go incognito elsewhere. I agree wholeheartedly that bullying is an ongoing problem; this verbal taunting and cruelty done to this woman just happened to be caught on camera. It is a good thing I wasn’t the monitor. I love kids and have abounding patience, but that phone would have gone flying out the window with the first derogatory word out of their mouth and then the four boys would follow if I could fit them through the window–then I’d yell after them, “Hah! Being skinny ain’t all that now is it?”(-; Thankfully, it was not me and Karen hopefully can retire with the 500k + that she receives for keeping her composure under such degrading and sad circumstances.

    • “Sadly, the kids know what the dark side of our culture is all about. They just haven’t yet mastered the rhetoric and ideology for disguising the ugliness of their warped notions of value and strength.”

      Well said.

  5. A lot of this is the influence of music, TV, and the net, where kids learn that obscenities and name-calling are acceptable, and to parents who are failing to monitor what their kids see and hear, and to teach them basic manners and respect for other people, including older adults.

  6. These kids are appalling.

  7. I watched this last night for the first time on the O’Reilly Factor, and I forget who he had on there to give additional comments, but the commentor’s statement that “these kids are dead inside” really resonated in me.

    Welcome to the early stages of antisocial P. D/O. and sociopathy. To say the things said per the situation presented by that video were beyond ugly and harsh.

    I would be interested to know what the parents of any identified children on that bus have to say now.

  8. It is truly amazing that the other adult on the bus did nothing, and I can only imagine why. The middle schoolers are simply acting on the social rules and norms presented to them by the school system itself.

    Anti-bulling programs in traditional school systems have value in that they make the problem explicit but they are deeply hypocritical. It is “do as I say, not as I do” – a position that middle school kids are developmentally primed to recognize.

    Let us have the courage to begin again with the end in mind.

  9. I cannot watch this whole video because of how upset this makes me. These kids are awful. Their parents should be ashamed, and the kids should have to feel what Karen felt.

  10. I am a few years older than this woman, mother and grandmother. I also run a small park which used to have park monitors my age or older. They were ineffective and served no purpose – they were just there. We eliminated the positions and the residents petitioned to have them rehired. We replaced them with younger people with much better results. I spent many an evening walking the park and did “battle” with a group of girls from the next village. They disobeyed anything I told them about park rules, challenged me, and called me names. For the most part, I was firm in insisting that they had to behave or leave, I laughed at them but didn’t back down. By the end of summer I knew who they were, where they lived, and by then they were my best friends. This episode on the bus took place on the last day of school. I can’t believe that this bullying only took place on the last day when it was filmed. I fault this woman if this was a year-long problem and she did nothing about it.

    • Thank you! Finally somebody pointed out the responsibility of this woman to control student behavior, the job she was being paid to do. This was June! Was this the only time kids were rude to her? Why is there an assumption she was given no training or support from the school system? IF that is true, they are deserve criticism, but I find it hard to believe they would have no interest in helping the monitor be more effective if she sought help.
      But Americans know how to make it all better: send her a bunch of money. … Why exactly???

      • From what I have seen of children and their parents today, there is a fear of saying or doing anything to children because the parents will very often stick up for their kids. I knew a child who wrote a note to another child (whose father had killed himself). It basically said “why don’t you f— yourself on your father’s grave and kill yourself like he did.” The mother of the writer of the note insisted that it was not her child’s handwriting even though her child’s teachers insisted it was. There was also a witness who saw the girl write the note. The school did not punish the note writer but punished the girl who was given the note because she reacted by pulling the note writer’s hair.

  11. I appreciate your insights on this incident and support them. And I think we also need to have a conversation about how we increase civility in our country. I wrote about the same incident at Psychology Today, with some different take-aways. Would love to get your insights on how to change the current culture of incivility. My article is at

  12. The children now love luxury; they have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise. Children are now tyrants, not the servants of their households. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and tyrannize their teachers.

    Socrates said that.

    Nostalgia of days yonder where kids behaved righteously and courteously to their elders is a figment of a yearning imagination.

  13. I was appalled at the bullying incident overall and recognize that this is a more pervasive problem than just this incident. In my opinion, the bullying continues because there are no consequences for these actions. As a first consequence, those kids should not be allowed to ride a bus to school again. Perhaps if the parents had to drive them, or they had to walk, parents would be more in tune with demanding appropriate behaviour on the bus. The second consequence should be to have these kids and their parents realize the effects of their behaviour by having them take an extensive anti-bullying course, work with victims of these actions, and perhaps even visiting a morgue where they could witness the ultimate consequence of bullying. They should also be told/shown how they contributed to this end. The third action should be extended community service. Enough of worrying about the needs/rights of the perpetrators. And I am tired of blaming the victims. Perhaps other actions on her part would have different outcomes, but that is the essence of bullying; the victims response is non-confrontational. Let’s focus on helping the victims. Whether the excuse is changing societal norms, music, peer pressure, or lack of parental guidance, it is time that the bullies of this world, and their parents had to deal with appropriate consequences.

    • A significant part of their community service should be constructively punitive. Give all of the guilty students toilet brushes and cans of Comet cleanser and have them scrub their school’s toilets and urinals for an entire school year. To protect their health, I would offer the students rubber gloves and protective eyewear to don, but in no way would I back down when their outraged parents, along with their lawyers, would complain and threaten to sue the school district for making their wayward children perform janitorial service. This action would be only the first small step to promote common decency and civility between students and adults in this community.

  14. You said:
    > Undisciplined children and teenagers today, more so than at any previous point in history, have virtually no respect for senior citizens.

    Likewise, far too many adults have virtually no respect for teens. Let’s consider the statements made about teens (and I am just picking out the worst ones):

    > teen’s inexperienced (and often poor) judgment,
    > Teenagers often have a very poor sense of judgment, since they lack enough experience to know when their behaviors can be traced back to them.
    > So they felt more empowered to act like farm animals than human beings.

    Yeah, this should not have happened. But respect is a two-way street.

    • I thought it went without saying, but I’ll say it now just to be clear:

      I was only talking about the teenagers in this incident, or more generally, teen bullies.

      I was not, nor did I mean to imply, all teenagers.

      Having said that, it’s demonstrable fact that — with less time on this Earth than a middle-aged adult, say — teens don’t always have the experience — or the judgment that comes with that experience — to make well-informed or thoughtful choices.

      Same could be said for many young adults (so it’s certainly not just limited to your teen years), and that’s why car insurance rates for this group are so high.

      Everyone wants respect. But respect has to be earned.

  15. I agree that there has been a serious decline in civility over the past couple of decades, and a steady increase in bullying and the “acceptability” of rude, crude, and profoundly damaging behavior among children. The causes and “cures” are things with which society must come to terms.

    Several things have been said about the bus driver. I have not seen any information on the driver in this incident, although I’ve read and heard several people commenting that the driver should have done something. I was a principal for 12 years and had ample opportunity to ask bus drivers about bus incidents. In almost every occasion, the driver told me s/he didn’t know the incident was going on. I didn’t believe them. It took me some time to make sense of this, but I finally realized it was probably true.

    In general, busses are very noisy. While I do not believe that children on busses must be noisy, the fact remains that most are. Quite frankly, I had to ride some busses to believe that the noise level could be as bad as it is! Further, it is nearly impossible to tell if the noise the children are making is negative or not just from sound alone. The driver is on one end of this large, noisy, moving “room.” S/he has his/her eyes on the road and side mirrors, not on the rear view mirror that shows the interior of the bus. It is entirely possible for a driver to neither hear nor see what is happening behind him/her especially if traffic is tricky. It is also possible for a driver to be aware that something is happening but not be able to determine what or to what extent. When there is a monitor on the bus, the driver may assume the monitor has the situation in hand.

    Few districts in which I’ve worked have had bus monitors. The fact that is one does have is an indication they recognize that drivers cannot both watch the road and watch the children.

    I am not condoning this deplorable act of bullying, nor any such psychological or physical violence. On the contrary, I’ve been working with students, parents, school employees, and now pre-service teachers to try to get a handle on bullying for many years. I also know that driving a school bus is a difficult, thankless job, for little pay — often just minimum wage.

    I do not think that there is enough money in this world to get me to drive a school bus!

  16. Parents are the first teachers of children. Stop the blame game schools, society, bus driver, etc.

    There are parents who do a great job and raise children who are respectful and kind. Your children are a reflection of you.

  17. Pretty sad when a bus needs a monitor. If kids were taught proper behavior, it would not be needed.

    The punishment which would fit the crime:

    Those verbally abusive kids should have to read The Verbally Abusive Relationship by Patricia Evans (it should be required reading for everyone on the planet). They should have to write a loong report on what they learned.

    Next, they should (in a public place) apologize to Karen and also hand her a letter of apology.

    Last, they should have to (every week for a year) go to a nursing home, announce who they are and why they are there, and get to know those older people….get to know them as human and hear their stories.
    That should make an impact.

  18. I work closely with very, very tough students in an urban school district. I’ve dealt with bullying and bad behavior. Yet I was pretty amazed by this video. I agree with readers that one (of many) things going on here is the adult failing to take power in the situation. But one thing that intrigues me is that it is THE LAST DAY OF SCHOOL! I’m trying to wrap my head around these kids’ states of mind on their first day of summer vacation. Does anyone have any comment about that? I remember from my childhood the end of school creating a thrilling sense of happiness and I wonder why these boys were in such a dark place.

    Are they lashing out because they’re feeling rejected? Is going home worse than being in school?
    I would say I’m detecting a lot of underlying anxiety but I’m afraid it would sound like I’m defending them. I’m not. But I would love somebody with training to do a cast study of this incident.

    • … a case study, that is…

  19. Hi John!
    Bullying has probably been around since the days of the cave man. It is a human condition that has evolved along with the human brain and psyche. The need for dominance to compete for food may be the root of bullying. As the homo sapiens species evolved and learned to grow food and stay in one place, human relations arose. Social skills and empathy for others would have to be worked out over eons. Social problems, along with certain personality disorders, would help give rise to the bully. No state of utopia in which bullying doesn’t exist is likely to grow. However, with awareness and strategies

    In order to understand what we need to do about bullying, we have to first understand the definition of bullying and what is bullying in school. Indeed, the line can get complicated at times, since many bullying incidents involve criminal behaviors as well.



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