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.
Bullying has been a rising problem among children and teenagers for years. The Internet’s (often false) sense of anonymity has amplified this trend in the past 10 years. Pair it with some teens’ inexperience and poor judgment, and you have a recipe ripe for growth.
School districts that don’t have a proactive anti-bullying program in place may often find themselves at a disadvantage when an incident like this happens. But most school programs don’t address this kind of opportunistic bullying — a group of kids bullying a lone adult.
The video (below) captures a confluence of factors which provided an opportunity for the 10 minutes of bullying to occur:
- The lone adult around them was vulnerable.
Young teen bullies have a sixth sense when it comes to vulnerability, no matter the person’s age. The person in the video viciously attacks Karen because he’s a pro at identifying Klein’s weaknesses. The fact that the group is attacking an adult doesn’t even seem to enter into the equation.1
- The adult was a senior citizen.
Some undisciplined children and teenagers today, more so than at any previous point in history, have virtually no respect for senior citizens. Whether it’s because they were never taught it, or believe the older people have nothing of interest to offer them of relevance to their lives, it’s not clear.
But when a child or teen isn’t taught to give at least a modicum of respect people who are seniors, they may believe there’s nothing wrong with insulting people who are different or older than them.
- The adult was apparently given no real authority to discipline the children.
Putting an adult into a situation where they are meant to police children, but making them powerless to actually do so, is a situation just begging to be exploited. Some young teenagers are very aware when adults have no real authority over them. These teens will then sometimes take advantage of such a situation when the moment presents itself.
If the point of a “bus monitor” is to sit there and help keep kids on a bus more under control leaving the bus driver to the important ask of actually driving the bus, then the bus monitor must be given a set of tools they can use to enforce appropriate behavior on a moving, motorized vehicle. Just plopping an adult into a moving room of 60 kids isn’t going to have the same effect it might have had 30 or 40 years ago.2
- The environment provided the opportunity.
In normal situations, a group of teens wouldn’t dream of bullying an adult at their school for 10 minutes straight. But put kids on a bus, and suddenly kids have unfettered access with very little oversight until their stop. This has long been a recipe for disaster that school districts for decades have been aware of (it was little different when I went to school and was bussed into the neighboring inner-city for desegregation).
What’s different is that parents are providing less discipline at home and expecting schools to do more with less. Parents today are often more likely to back up their kids in disputes with schools, rather than taking the school’s side in a dispute or discipline problem.
This provides a simple message to some teens and kids — “I can get away with murder, and my parents will back me up.” Allowing inappropriate behavior without consequences is a very good teacher.
- The environment reinforces a “mob mentality.”
“When people are part of a group, they often experience deindividuation, or a loss of self-awareness,” says Tamara Avant, Psychology program director at South University — Savannah. “When [this happens], they are less likely to follow normal restraints and inhibitions and more likely to lose their sense of individual identity.”
“Groups can generate a sense of emotional excitement, which can lead to the provocation of behaviors that a person would not typically engage in if alone.”
But mob mentality doesn’t form every time you get a group of kids together. So why did one form this time?
“First, many people believe they cannot be held responsible for violent behavior when part of a mob because they perceive the violent action as the group’s (e.g., “everyone was doing it”) rather than their own behavior,” notes Avant.
“Second, physical anonymity also leads to a person experiencing fewer social inhibitions. When people feel that their behavior cannot be traced back to them, they are more likely to break social norms and engage in violence.”
Some teenagers may be prone to making bad decisions based upon poor judgment, since they lack enough experience to know when their behaviors can be traced back to them. This group of teens, who took the video and posted it to one of their own Facebook pages, obviously thought it would never be seen outside their group of friends. So this group of teens felt more empowered to act like farm animals than human beings.
- The bus driver didn’t provide back-up to the bus monitor.
If the bus driver had been paying attention, they would’ve provided needed back up to the bus monitor. For reasons that remain unclear, the only other adult on the bus apparently ignored the situation.
There’s plenty of blame to go around in this incident. The school district needs to provide better tools to adults if they’re going to put them into these kinds of situations. Parents need to step up and recognize that their failure to parent — or rely on others to provide the discipline and skills to their children — contributes to situations like this. And most of all, the teens directly involved in this incident must learn that bad behavior has very real consequences. Poor judgment in a moment like this will reflect on them for the rest of their lives.
And we mustn’t kid ourselves that this is a lone incident. This sort of bad behavior goes on everyday, on buses around the U.S., in many, many more communities. The only reason we know of this incident is because one of the students involved had such poor judgment, they decided to film it — and then upload it to the Internet.
Our hearts and prayers go out to Karen Klein, and we wish her all the best in her future life (made all the more richer by the donation fund below).
Watch the video (warning: contains profanity and bullying of a senior citizen):
Show your support and donate to Karen Klein’s vacation fund (which — now at over $250,000 and climbing quickly! — is more likely a retirement fund). Update: About 18 hours after I wrote this entry, the fund is now at over $450,000. 2nd Update: About 42 hours after I wrote this entry, the fund is now at over $610,000!
Read the Metro article: Karen Klein: Supporters donate thousands for school bus monitor harassed by kids
Note: Edited for clarity on June 26, 2012.
- Unfortunately, the bullies are also incredibly unperceptive and perhaps not very bright, as they confuse Klein’s crying with her sweating. [↩]
- School districts, listen up — you can’t keep doing things just because that’s the way you’ve always done them. You need to keep up with changing times, and change your programs to fit those changing times. [↩]
Grohol, J. (2014). The Psychology of Middle School Kids Bullying a Bus Monitor. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 20, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2012/06/21/the-psychology-of-middle-school-kids-bullying-a-bus-monitor/