A video of four seventh-grade boys mercilessly taunting a 68-year-old bus monitor in New York state that went viral has turned the victim into an international fundraising juggernaut and opened her tormentors to an onslaught of threats and abuse.
From around the world, small donations for Karen Klein poured into the crowd-funding site indiegogo.com, at one point crashing the site and pulling in a staggering $443,057 (€349,689) by early Friday.
At the same time, police in the Rochester suburb of Greece, N.Y., were stepping up patrols around the houses of the middle-schoolers accused of taunting her. Police didn't name the boys but their purported identities leaked out on the Web.
Greece Police Capt. Steve Chatterton was compelled to warn against vigilante justice. One boy received more than a thousand death threats and commenters online were clear — and sometimes venomous — in their desire that the boys be severely punished.
"A threat for a threat does not make the situation better," Chatterton said at a news conference Thursday afternoon.
The verbal abuse was captured in a 10-minute cellphone video recorded Monday by a student of Athena Middle School and later posted to YouTube. The video shows Klein trying her best to ignore the stream of profanity, insults and outright threats. One student taunted: "You don't have a family because they all killed themselves because they don't want to be near you."
Klein's oldest son killed himself 10 years ago.
Eventually, she appears to break down in tears.
The swell of support for Klein follows a recent surge in awareness of bullying that has brought the issue from the classroom to the stage and screen to the White House. Bullying expert Stephen Birchak, a professor of counseling at Albany's College of Saint Rose, said the enormous flow of money for Klein is no surprise given the shame we feel as a society over the incident.
The stickier question is: How could the students be so cruel?
Birchak noted that the kids are growing up in a world of harsh political debates and reality TV shows in which berating people is part of the entertainment. Meanwhile, taking videos of people in humiliating situations and sharing the images has become all too normal among many adolescents, "Kids are growing up saying, 'OK, this is how you treat your fellow human being and it's OK to do those things,'" he said.
(People magazine reported today that three of the students seen taunting Klein in the video have issued apologies to her. "I am so sorry for the way I treated you," one students identified as "Josh," said in a statement issued by police Thursday to Anderson Cooper 360. "When I saw the video I was disgusted and could not believe I did that. I am sorry for being so mean and I will never treat anyone this way again." "Wesley," another student, People reported, similarly wrote: "I feel really bad about what I did. I wish I had never done those things. If that had happened to someone in my family, like my mother or grandmother, I would be really mad at the people who did that to them." )
Police said Klein does not want the boys to face criminal charges, partly because of the storm of criticism leveled at them.
Klein told NBC's "Today" show Thursday that it took "a lot of willpower" not to respond to the jeers from the four boys riding the bus operated by the Greece Central School District. Klein said she was "amazed" at the support she received.
"I've got these nice letters, e-mails, Facebook messages," she said. "It's like, wow, there's a whole world out there that I didn't know. It's really awesome."
Klein did not immediately return a call from The Associated Press seeking comment.
The fundraiser flew past its goal of $5,000, initially designed to send the grandmother of eight on a "vacation of a lifetime." Some 20,875 people had donated by early Friday, many in denominations of $20 or less.
"You want to jump into that bus and you want to grab those kids and say 'Knock it off!' And you want to hold her," said Amy Weber, a 43-year-old independent filmmaker from the Detroit area who pledged $100.
"I think we hear about bullying every day and we become a little desensitized to it. This puts it in our face" said Weber, who is making a feature film about a bully.
Slava Rubin, Indiegogo's chief executive officer and co-founder, called the outpouring "an incredible campaign."
"We're seeing good Samaritans come together to support this brave woman, and we hope that this campaign contributes positively to the important national discussion about bullying," Rubin said in a prepared statement.