If you live in the United States and have access to a news source, then you have most likely heard of Karen Klein. In case you have just emerged from a hole in the ground, awakened from a medically induced coma, or returned from a fabulous vacation in North Korea, I'll bring you up to speed. Karen Klein is a 68 year-old bus monitor in New York state who was bullied by a group of middle school boys on the bus while performing her monitoring duties. To be clear, the treatment she was given could be characterized as verbally abusive; it was savage. The boys' intent was to cause her emotional pain. Why do we know this? We know this because the video that surfaced on the Internet that recorded the boys' ridicule and bullying as well as Ms. Klein's responses was entitled "Making The Bus Monitor Cry".
As of June 23, 2012, that video received 5,672,306 hits on YouTube. The public outcry on behalf of Karen Klein was channeled into a fundraising effort to send her on a vacation which has now amounted to more than $600,000 in donations. She's been a guest on the Today show. She's been interviewed by Anderson Cooper. She's in newspapers across the United States and other English-speaking countries. It seems that this story is resonating with people across cultures.
But there is another dimension to this story, and no one is casting a light on it.
Children are bullied every day on the bus and treated exactly like Ms. Klein, if not worse. This video didn't just show the world what a few seventh grade boys from upstate New York were doing to one of their elders; this video showed the world how children treat other children in school--all the time.
Allow me to illustrate my point.
I have four daughters. One of them was bullied on the school bus for six months. She never told anyone. She thought that she could handle it. Then one day, she couldn't. Her bully threatened to hurt her physically. I got involved when I finally learned what was happening. I also learned that her school didn't really have a policy regarding bullying. I spoke to her teacher. In the end, it was decided that my husband and I should drive our two younger daughters to and from school for two weeks, and the boy who was bullying her would retain his bus-riding privileges. When my daughters returned to riding the bus, the bullying only increased.
Once again, I spoke with teachers as well as the principal. My sole question for the principal was: "Are my daughters safe in their school?" She evaded. "Are they?" She wouldn't answer. "What's the bullying policy?" No answer. "My daughter has autism. She is vulnerable."..."I didn't know that." In the end, the principal of my local elementary school would not tell me that my little girls were safe in their school. Instead, she told me that the boys who were bullying them needed help implying that my girls were on their own. While it is true that children who bully do need help, that help should not come at the expense of their victims. Sadly, this is not an uncommon response.
My next step? I went to the bus company since the worst of the bullying happened on the bus. In our district, at the beginning of each school year, every child receives what appears to be a social contract--rules and expectations that they will abide by when they ride the bus. They and their parents must sign this contract if they intend to ride the bus. My question for the bus company: "What happens when the contract is broken?" If a child bullies another child on the bus, then they break the social contract. They ought to lose their bus-riding privilege. The manager of the bus company said that the contracts originated from the schools, and it is the principals' job to enforce any broken contracts. Once again, I was faced with dealing with the school principal who clearly liked the status quo.
The next step? I called the superintendent and notified the school board. I got nowhere fast. The last thing I could do was talk to other parents. There had to be other children experiencing problems. I found out that another special needs child had a gun pulled on him while riding the bus. A gun! In our little suburb! I heard extraordinary stories of harassment, sexual harassment, ridicule, abuse, and behavior that would qualify as assault if an adult behaved in that manner, and all of it was happening on the bus. What's more, the bus drivers knew about it, but they seldom did anything. Our principal knew about it, too, but nothing was being done. Children were fearful, and not a few were experiencing high anxiety.
We parents decided to approach the school board one evening during a scheduled meeting. Someone alerted the local media, and it turned into quite the brouhaha. Everyone was allowed to speak to the board individually at a podium. We were recorded for the local television channels. There were over fifty of us in total. It was a long session.
When our story hit a larger news source, the comment section filled up quickly. We were called "overreactive", "bitches", "stupid", "freaks who can't take life", "a bunch of morons lookin' for attention", "fucking Jews who expect special attention" (this remark is solely based on a demographic stereotype of the particular suburb in which I live). Notice that a story about bullying attracted more, well, verbal bullying. Secondly, we were approaching the school board because the leadership in our district had not made bus safety or school safety a priority, and the vulnerable members of our community were experiencing victimization. Isn't that what the stronger members of a society are supposed to do? Protect the vulnerable? Children are vulnerable members of the community. Thirdly, how does advocating for vulnerable members of a community make people "bitches", "overreactive", or "entitled"?
I share this story because vulnerable members of our communities are victimized daily, and they are not rewarded for it as Karen Klein was. Karen Klein is an adult, and she had the option to speak out. Because she is an adult, other adults would have listened to her particularly since her harassment came from children. That is a privilege given to adults. They have "done the time" so to speak--reached adulthood. When a child is bullied on the bus in the same manner that Karen Klein was bullied, however, people often do nothing. I can say this with certainty. My daughter asked for help from her own bus driver three times, and her bus driver did absolutely nothing. Why? Because "kids will be kids".
Boys will be boys. Everyone hates the bus. It's just something everyone has to go through. Just ignore them. They'll stop. Girls can be so mean sometimes. Fill in the blank with your own platitude. ____________________.
Here are some staggering statistics. According to the Centers for Disease Control, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people, resulting in about 4,400 deaths per year. According to a study done in Britain, at least half of suicides in young people are related to bullying. Do the math. Over 2,000 young people are dying by suicide because they are being bullied, and no one is advocating for them.
To be clear, being bullied is not a rite of passage that we all must go through in order to attain a better adulthood. It is harassment at the lesser end of the spectrum and can be assault at other end, and it can change a person's life--even end it. Many of our schools' bullying policies are founded upon self-advocacy, but when a child comes forward in an attempt to self-advocate, they are often ignored, patronized, and told to "get over it". The prevailing attitude among many adults is that bullying is a fact of life. We all went through it as kids so our kids must go through it, too. It's the American way--what doesn't kill you makes you stronger.
Only it is killing children. They are killing themselves. One life lost it too many lives, but 2,200 lives lost is an epidemic. I haven't even mentioned cyberbullying...
I am actually thrilled that Karen Klein is being given a free trip to Disneyland, and it gives me chills to think that a group of generous people would give over $600,000 to a stranger in an effort to give her a life away from such maltreatment. I wouldn't deprive Ms. Klein of one good thing that she's experiencing because I want her to have it. She's experienced great loss in her life. One of those boys told her that no one loved her. Everyone in her family would probably kill themselves to get away from her. The painful truth is that she did, in fact, lose a loved one to suicide a decade earlier. I hope she knows nothing but meaningful friendships, abundant happiness, and opportunities for success from here on out.
I want more, too. I want the world to see a child sitting in the place of Karen Klein on that bus. When they watch that video on YouTube, I want them to fully understand that what they are seeing is happening, day after day, to a vulnerable child. It happened to two of my daughters one of whom has autism. She was only seven years-old at the time. It happens to children with Down's Syndrome and other development and physical disabilities. It happens to children who are new to this country. It happens to children from the Middle East because of their religion and ethnicity. It happens to young people who are gay. It happens for all sorts of reasons and for no reason at all. No one gives these children a free trip to Disneyland. No one does anything at all. Until...
There are now cameras on all the buses in my school district, and those bus contracts are a thing of the past. As for the school principal who refused to ensure the safety of the children in school? Replaced.