Bus monitor Karen Klein: Publicity punishment enough for bullies?

Karen Klein, the bullied bus monitor, doesn't want her taunters prosecuted. Is the negative publicity about the bullies punishment enough? What would you do if it were your kid?

John Nordell/The Christian Science Monitor
Karen Klein, the bullied bus monitor, is not pressing charges against her taunters. Is the negative publicity about the bullies punishment enough? What would you do if it your kid behaved this way? In this 2002 file photo, a school bus drops off a student near the town of Derry, N.H.

So an update on the story this week about Karen Klein, the bus monitor who was shown on a YouTube video being relentlessly verbally abused by a group of middle school children:

International donations for Ms. Klein, sent through the social fundraising site indiegogo.com, have topped – get this – $450,000.  (Take that, kids who were taunting Klein about how “poor” she was.) Southwest Airlines has offered to fly Klein and nine other people on an all-expense-paid trip to Disneyland. And at least two of the kids have “apologized,” according to statements handed over by police to, of course, CNN’s Anderson Cooper 360.  (Does this story get wackier and wackier, or what?)

"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," read one of the statements, given by a child identified as Wesley.

(And really, Wesley, you should be mad if someone did it to anyone’s mother or grandmother, but I won’t quibble.)

Meanwhile, just to give more ammunition to those who blame our “mean” culture for the middle school kids’ outrageous behavior, police in Greece, N.Y. have had to start patrolling the homes of the boys involved because they have reportedly received death threats.

(Sigh. C’mon people. Let’s stay classy here.)

Still, there’s no more info on what will actually happen, officially, to the little bus monsters.

Yesterday I wrote that I suspected that the answer to this would be, effectively, nothing. Public school systems are hamstrung in handing out any real punishments, and at this point Klein says she does not want to press criminal charges.

(This, by the way, goes to one of the questions I’ve heard about this incident, which is why the bus monitor, the person supposedly in charge of keeping the peace on the yellow Lord of the Flies mobile, takes such abuse. Problematic, no?

And I agree. But her response, when asked why she didn’t try to discipline the children was a telling: “Why bother? What good is it going to do?”)

Any real consequences, I imagine, will (or won’t) take place within the homes of the children involved.  And given the way the children acted on the bus – well, it’s easy to be a bit skeptical about whether any home-based reaction will be particularly effective.

One of the seventh grader’s dads, for instance, said the boys have suffered enough given the publicity of the video.

“He’s a 13-year-old kid,” Robert Helms told ABC news. “It was a stupid mistake and he’s paying for it, but I just think it’s a little out of control.”

Um, wrong.

When bazillions of the people around the world catch you doing something horrible, I’m sure it’s tough. But that exposure – as embarrassing as it is (and should be) – is simply not punishment.  No, it’s just the mirror.  Confusing the two is at the crux of a widespread parenting problem.  (Just because something is hard for your kid doesn’t mean that it’s unjust.)

But it got me wondering….  what would you do if you found out your kid had participated in something like this?

An informal query and perusal of web comments lead to answers that ranged from  “They would be grounded FOREVER” to “corporal punishment.”

But really, what would you do?  What a horrifically embarrassing, saddening moment for a parent.

And to be honest, I really don’t know the answer.  I would hope that the answer is in prevention – in having a home attitude where relentless taunting of a grandmother is not considered just a “stupid mistake,” but morally, deeply wrong.

And not just having that home environment, but in creating an open dialogue with one’s kids to connect the dots between home values and the seemingly disparate pop culture values of political incivility, shock jock radio shows, and accepted meanness.  Kids live in both worlds – it's up to us to help ground them in kindness. And it’s also up to us to provide instructive consequences when they go astray.

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