More Than an Incident on a Bus

Originally posted on Open Salon on June 21, 2012:

            Some months ago I wrote about Melanie, a schoolmate of mine who was bullied mercilessly decades ago when we were in the sixth grade.  Much of the abuse took place on the school bus, and I wrote about my role as an inert bystander who failed to step in, and who even rejoiced at some moments in the suffering of someone incapable of defending herself.  Only after she was physically injured did I begin to consider what this poor girl endured.

             This week’s viral video of what happened on Monday to a school district employee in Greece, New York, illustrated many of these same tendencies that can emerge in our young people.  In the footage, school bus monitor Karen Klein bore insults verbal attacks that, to put it mildly, shock the conscience.  Klein, a widow who lives alone, appeared to bear the majority of the harassment without responding.  This appears partly due to her hearing impairment, as she did not hear much of what the students were saying until after school district officials showed her the video as part of their investigation into the incident.  Indeed, this footage presents too much for many of us to bear.  The personal insults regarding Klein’s appearance go on for over ten minutes, but the students’ threats and cruelty push the limits of insidious imagination.  In one instance, students threaten to find out where Klein lives in order to harm her and to perpetrate some unprintable atrocities.  In another, they invoke the memory of her son who committed suicide years ago, saying that people close to Klein kill themselves because they cannot bear to be around her.  At one point, she begins to read inspirational words printed on her purse, only to receive an overpowering and venomous chorus of invective in response.  That children can perpetrate this kind of intense, sustained, and brazen abuse represents one dimension of our concern; that they would direct it at an adult responsible for supervising them takes us into yet another realm of discussion.

             But there is more to consider.   This video was posted on Youtube by one of the students on the bus.  He claims that peer pressure accounts for his action, that he is very sorry for what Mrs. Klein endured, and that he should not have listened to his friends.  He also says he took no part in the abuse.  Sadly, these assertions ring hollow.  It seems unlikely that his friends pressured him to take the additional step of posting the video online, and it would appear equally implausible that his sympathy came about before the public became duly outraged, prompting the police and school district’s administration to look into the matter.  Much more likely, this young man—similarly to myself in grade six—enjoyed watching the abuse, jeered along with the attackers, felt a sense of empowerment in recording the events, and sought notoriety among his peers when he made it available for public view.

             The injustice of what occurs in the video has provoked an intense response from the public.  An online charity immediately sprung up to begin collecting funds to send Klein on a vacation, and as of this writing, the donations have totaled nearly $400,000.  On the darker side, however, the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle reports that students in the school district—even a few who were not alleged to be involved in the incident—have received hundreds of threats online and via text message.

             The horror of Mrs. Klein’s experience certainly merits our collective empathy and anger.  Sadly, the reflexive impulse toward revenge will solve absolutely nothing.  Worse, without a thoughtful, rational discussion, our entire society could lose an important opportunity to learn valuable lessons from this reprehensible incident.

             First, despite policy requiring anti-bullying education and procedures for reporting abuse, the message is not reaching all of our children.  All human beings possess a capacity to enjoy seeing others suffer; all of us have to some degree an impulse to be cruel; all of us in some measure can enjoy the feeling of impunity when doing something we know is wrong.  These are human truths.  When circumstances provide the dry tinder and group euphoria fans the sparks of these malicious tendencies, the resulting conflagration should not surprise us.

             Next, any society’s impulse to visit vengeance strictly upon individuals whose behavior reflects wider problems is misguided at best.  The students who perpetrated these acts should be held fully responsible—in terms of school policy and in terms of the law.  If this harms their prospects in the future, so be it.  Justice demands that they face consequences.  However, if the story ends there, these students will simply become scapegoats, and we will fail as a civilization to address the evils that lurk in all of us.

             Until now, the typical approach to the bullying issue has involved some documents posted on a school district’s website and enumerated in newsletters.  Indeed, the Greece Central School District has ample information online regarding its harassment, intimidation, and bullying (HIB) policies.  But a meaningful approach to this matter requires much more than this and certainly much more than a bunch of inspirational posters and feel-good slogans posted in classrooms and in hallways.  Teachers and administrators have to do more than sprinkle a few comments here and there over the course of a school year.  Far more important is a comprehensive approach in all of our schools to define acceptable behavior and to foster credible, authoritative enforcement of these expectations by all stakeholders.

               HIB issues need not become obscured as schools emphasize respect, fairness, kindness, and order; rather, they can receive all the more emphasis.  All adults in the school community—teachers, aides, secretaries, hallway supervisors, custodians, bus drivers, and bus monitors alike—must agree on principles that students must uphold with their behavior.  Moreover, all adults must consistently and continuously communicate, stress, and reinforce these principles.  They must intervene when they observe anything at variance.  They must teach students to do the same.  The adults must learn strategies for overcoming their fears as they act, and they must impart those same tactics to the students.  They must prepare students to overcome the resistance and the attacks when they take up the cause of the weak.  Adults and students must work together on a continual basis to establish and sustain a living, robust system that supports people who would see wrongs and attempt to set them right.  This is not a set-it-up-and-leave-it framework; it is an integral feature of a school culture that recognizes and enhances every day the good in people and insists every day upon circumstances that allow that good to thrive.

             These ideas must come through in every social norm that an outside observer would note about the school system—and in every situation even remotely associated with the institution.  In such a scenario, all members of the school community interact civilly with each other, and any instance of incivility stands out conspicuously as a matter for discussion and for a constructive response.  People in this sort of community pay attention to each other, and they expect the best from themselves and from those around them.  These people acknowledge the destructive impulses that they all have, and they seek to minimize the harm that can result.  They use lessons in all content areas as reinforcements of these ideas, not as some perfunctory activity required by school regulations, but because vivid examples abound across the curriculum.  Such schools illustrate the struggle between justice and injustice in their lessons about Hypatia of Alexandria, Galileo, Artemesia Gentileschi, Frederick Douglass, Anne Frank, Cesar Chavez, and Nelson Mandela.

             The school district in Greece, New York merely happens to be the one receiving the attention and scrutiny at this particular moment.  The events many of us have witnessed by watching the infamous video—as egregious as they are—could easily have happened in most school districts across the country.  Some elements in our media have seen to it that our young people possess the precocious and explicit sexual knowledge, the desensitization to vile language, and the hissing malice toward the innocent and defenseless.  And to be sure, if this latest video depicts events that just happened to be captured and posted, we can only suspect how many other similar incidents occur with disturbing frequency.

             So, at the base of things, this incident is not just about a handful of kids in Greece, New York.  It’s about all of us.  And it’s about what we will or will not do about it.

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