By now the whole world has seen the video of a group of middle school boys bullying Karen Klein, the school bus monitor in Greece, New York. The boys have been vilified, their families threatened, and the school board will decide whether the boys will be suspended for the entire 2012-2013 school year. An online site has collected more than $500,000 for Klein and she is being showered with gifts, including an expense-paid trip to Disney World by ABC, which owns the theme park.
An important issue, however, is not being addressed. What were Klein’s qualifications for being a school bus monitor and what training did she receive? If she couldn’t even protect herself from the bullying she endured, what were the chances that she would be able to protect a child put in a similar situation? Being a school bus monitor these days involves more than just making sure children don’t forget their lunches or their backpacks. The job requires protecting the safety and well-being of all the children who board.
After researching and writing eight books for parents of young adolescents, traveling around the country, talking with middle schoolers, Margaret Sagarese and I learned that the school bus is a battle ground. Time and again, kids would tell us that they dreaded that ride to school. In that enclosed space, bullies run wild. Often the teasing and taunting turns violent (YouTube is also filled with these videos) and children get hurt. Many refuse to tattle, knowing that more assaults await them in school hallways, the locker room, or the cafeteria.
Schools have responded to the bullying threat on buses by hiring school bus monitors. But those monitors can only be effective if they are qualified and trained properly. Which brings us back to the question of whether Klein was qualified and whether she was properly trained.
This is not a criticism of Klein. From her interviews on TV, she appears sincere, well-meaning, and kind. From the video, however, she appears unable to deal with the bullying situation. Rather than a bus monitor in a position of authority, she comes across as just another passenger, pulling into herself, crying, just trying to survive the ride. If we didn’t know that she was on a school bus, we might have thought she was on a public bus enduring this teasing. She wasn’t. She was on a school bus entrusted with the care and safety of the other students on that bus.
If she had been properly trained, Klein would have had some tools in her anti-bullying tool box which might have helped her defuse the situation before it exploded. Some examples:
Establish authority. Rather than cowering in her seat, Klein should have been on her feet, standing over the bullies, looking down at them, telling them in no uncertain terms that she, not they, was in charge of what happens on that bus.
Divide and conquer. Young people will do in groups what they would never do as individuals. On TV, one father said he was surprised that his kid, described as a nice boy, would engage in such behavior. Klein’s tactic should have been to isolate one member of the group by talking to him directly. “John, I know this is not the person you are. Don’t let these other boys dictate your behavior.”
Curb emotion. Bullies love to get a reaction. Klein’s tears just encouraged them to continue. Her only comeback, “If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all,” was woefully inadequate.
Call on a higher authority. If Klein wasn’t equipped with a walkie talkie or a cell phone, she should have been. Her ultimatum should have been to alert the authorities, school or law enforcement, if the boys didn’t stop their bullying behavior. The threat alone might have been enough to convince them to quit. She also could have used her cell phone to snap photos of them, telling them those photos would be emailed to the school and their parents.
Develop a tough skin. Middle school is a gauntlet and the targets are not limited to kids. Teachers, parents, and, yes, school bus monitors, will come in for their share of slings and arrows. Personal attacks—and there were many hurled at Klein—need to be set aside. Again, the important role of the bus monitor is not to react personally to attacks, but to act to protect the other children on the bus.
School districts around the country need to review what happened on Klein’s bus. Yes, kids need to be told that bullying of any kind is unacceptable. But schools also need to revisit the role of the school bus monitor. These individuals are sometimes all that stands between a bully and a victim. They need to be properly vetted and trained.
Charlene Giannetti and Margaret Sagarese are the co-authors of books for parents of young adolescents including Cliques: 8 Steps to Help Your Child Survive the Social Jungle.