No matter what happens next, there's already a certain amount of solace for Karen Klein, the school bus monitor from upstate New York who on Monday found herself the target of four middle-school boys bent on taunting and tormenting her during the ride home. People who became aware of the incident via the Internet have since pledged more than $250,000 – and counting – to give her a nice vacation.
Ms. Klein may now have the option to do more than take a nice trip. The 68-year-old grandmother could perhaps retire, though she has said she wants to continue in her job in spite of the now-infamous bullying episode.
Her tale has as its bookends an act of cruelty followed by an outpouring of empathy. It all began Monday afternoon on the bus ride home from Athens Middle School in Greece, N.Y., a Rochester suburb, when four boys turned their attention to Klein, whose job it is to ensure that the kids on board don't get out of control. They began with name-calling and obscenities, but over the next 10 minutes the attack escalated to describing violent acts, including stabbing and cutting her. They flicked at her hair and the underside of her arm, and told her “you don’t have a family because they all killed themselves because they don’t want to be near you.”
Klein said later, in an interview on a local NBC station, that she’d never experienced anything like it in more than 20 years as a bus driver and monitor. “I was trying to just ignore them, hoping they would go away, and it doesn’t work," she said. "Trust me, they didn’t go away.”
Student torment of a teacher or another adult who works at school is not unusual, say those who track bullying. Even as an adult, Klein would be hard-pressed to step the harassment, says Barbara Coloroso, a teacher and an author of books about stopping bullying. That’s because “when nobody stopped it, they got emboldened. It’s overwhelming when you as an individual are being mocked,” she says.
The students uploaded to Facebook the videos they’d recorded documenting the harassment, which proved to be their undoing.
Kids do that in the expectation that only their friends will see them, according to Elizabeth Englander, a psychology professor and the director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center.
It didn’t work out that way. Another local student saw the video and uploaded it to YouTube, under the username CapitalTrigga.
In an online interview, this student explains, “I know these kids do it on a daily basis. I've seen these kids harass her, but never to the extent of this. I believe that they thought because it was the last day of school they couldn't get in trouble.” He did not foresee what would happen next.
The video upset Max Sidorov, a Canadian member of the online community Reddit. He told the blog Mashable that he has had experience with bullying and knows how it feels. He thought Klein could use a vacation, but saw her salary listed as $15,506 on a school district website. That, he surmised, wouldn’t be enough.
So he started an Internet-based fundraising campaign on the site Indiegogo. After word spread on Reddit and other sites, the fund for Klein didn’t take long to pass the $5,000 mark. More than $250,000 has now been pledged, and that number is climbing.
Internet users are spreading the story and the video, along with links to the donation page. Fears that the campaign might be a scam – this is the Internet, after all – have abated as Indiegogo and Klein’s family have said that they know the money is for her.
One Internet user even started another campaign to raise $2,000 to thank Mr. Sidorov.
“This is just the evolution of the Internet – they understand the power of being able to create the space they want,” says Parry Aftab, executive director of Wired Safety. “The great thing is that people are using tech now to band together to counter bullying.”
But on some fronts, the response might be coming too fast to control. Names and phone numbers of students purported to be involved in the incident have been posted online, even though local police have said they are still investigating, presumably to determine whether to charge the boys. Some posts have apparently accused students who weren’t on the bus, according to Dr. Englander.
The school district and police are scrambling to keep up. The school district has identified the four students involved and will take disciplinary action, though a spokeswoman said at a press conference Thursday that it is inappropriate to discuss the penalty for any individual student. Klein has said she does not want to press charges, but did say that she would like an apology.
The school district and the boys' parents now must ensure that the students learn their lesson, says Ms. Coloroso. The kids involved need to individually do what they can to try to make restitution, but any student who was on the bus should be made to watch the video and discuss the incident. “Ethically, I’d like to hold every kid on that bus accountable” for not stepping in or saying something, she says.