Bad Seed or Bad Soil? The Case of the Bullied Bus Monitor

I’m trying to make sense of this:

I know the kids behaved monstrously, and verbally assaulting an elderly (apparently hearing-impaired) grandmother/bus monitor is indefensible. But I’ve got some questions, too. Why is an elderly, hearing impaired grandmother serving as a bus monitor, anyway? Go ahead, bring on the umbrage, call me “ageist,” tell me how wonderful it is that an elderly hearing impaired grandmother can earn a measly 15K per year as a bus monitor. I stand by my question.

Anyone who’s spent 30 seconds with middle schoolers knows that buses (and lunch rooms and playgrounds) are cesspools of incivility.  They are also the sites where 95 % of bullying occurs — it almost never happens in classrooms –  so why do schools (and families) continue to think it’s okay to turn kids loose like this without any meaningful supervision? Why do we place poorly trained and disempowered folks in positions of non-authority only to serve as red meat to these bratty, misdirected youth? Schools where teachers and students eat lunch together have lower (much lower) bullying rates. Ditto teachers who actually play games with kids at recess instead of just milling around in a group. (And this is where you really see the problem of gender imbalance in the school system, by the way. On average, male teachers are much more physically active with their students.)

But I know we’re supposed to blame the parents – not the schools. Fine, pile on; I can’t disagree. (I’m pretty certain that none of the nice kids I know would do such a thing.) But, even so, “good” people do rotten things in the right circumstances. Including, and especially, in crowds. Note: the bus monitor wasn’t monitoring. Yes, yes, she was on the receiving end of vicious, skin-crawling abuse. It made her cry. (And me, too.) But what was her role, exactly? And where was the bus driver in this? Why didn’t he/she just stop the bus immediately and tell the kids to shutthef-ckup? You could see in the video how these little Lordlings of the Flies were getting more and more revved up and – to my eye – just waiting, almost wanting - some adult to say: shutthef-ckupyoumiserablepunks.

I appreciate that this poor benighted lady was exhausted from such an emotional assault. (And I also read that she couldn’t even hear a lot of what they said.)  But the two adults supposedly in control of the bus didn’t even report the behavior; the video was recorded and released by a student! If they had reported it, the kids likely would have been suspended from taking the bus — as happens in many towns – and you can bet the inconvenienced parents would have responded fast.

In any event, like clockwork, we get the chorus of liberal bashing: life in the “old days” was superior. People were so civil and respectful. Tell that to the mentally retarded girl on my bus in 1970 who was stripped naked by a bunch of cro magnon boys. And this was in swanky Weston, MA, not some yahoo place where people don’t know any better. (That was supposed to be a sly dig at the swanky Westonites who think they aren’t yahoos, but I don’t think it came out right.)  It’s probably true that kids were (marginally) more “respectful” of adults but probably only because they were getting off on being so hateful to other kids. Bullying has actually decreased over the last two decades. Quite dramatically.

Like I said, I really don’t know what to make of this sad scene. It seems to capture the age-old academic argument about ‘structure vs. agency,’ ie WHO IS TO BLAME HERE, DAMMIT? The rudderless kids (and their crummy families) or a ‘system’ that puts kids (and hapless, utterly disempowered adults) at risk?

About ErikaChristakis

Yale Lecturer in early childhood education/Licensed teacher/Former preschool director and Harvard College house master/some-time journalist. In possession of: unmarketable bachelor’s degree (Harvard, anthropology), semi-marketable graduate degrees (public health, education…). Rewarding career at the intersection of family, society, and schools (including long stint in parenting vortex). Forging a new path to connect all of the above.
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11 Responses to Bad Seed or Bad Soil? The Case of the Bullied Bus Monitor

  1. Geo says:

    Society in general is to blame. Fist the kids would never attempt such a thing knowing that if the parent(s) at home found out there would be real consequences. We never had a bus monitor, we had a driver and if you were out of line you were dismissed from riding the bus, possibly for the balance of the year, The fact the school employed her as a bus monitor indicates that they truly do not have a grasp or are ignoring just how bad behavior has become. The bus driver, oblivious to this as well, i doubt it?? I mean her job in part is to assist in making his job easier and the bus safer. The other students, not participating just watching this take place says a lot as well. She just sat there and took it why, is it cause she was not prepared or afraid, what the school would do or all these? No, responsibility is with all of them (society) to not place more focus and effort to stop the destruction of the basic moral template.

    • Thanks for sharing. I collect little tidbits of evidence of the Decline of the American Empire, and this is surely one of them. Very sad. I still can’t get my head around why the school wasn’t immediately informed. But I’m not exonerating those mean, mean kids either.

  2. Aimee says:

    I have been upset since first learning of this story. My 6th grader son has said unkind things to adults (nothing this horrific, but let’s face it, it doesn’t start with this level of savagery) so I made him watch this video and I think he has been shamed into understanding just how offensive and disgusting this is. Heaven help him if I ever catch him behaving like this!!!!

    I also agree, Erika, that the adults who are the subjects of derision from children (most often grumbling amongst the children) were the least-engaged with the kids. Low-paid, non-teacher staff are doing jobs that were once the non-classroom jobs of professional faculty, and I think it creates an environment where this kind of behavior can start, and grow, until it IS a serious problem. I am a Gen-Xer, and I can clearly remember my teachers eating their lunch at the table WITH us, or walking around with sandwich in hand (but it was in an interactive way, not just prison-guard fashion). Furthermore, teachers (female!) OFTEN played with us – turned the jumprope (or taught us new ways to jump rope), helped to organize games of kickball, pushed little kids on the swings, just to name a few activities. Conversely, when I have been at my son’s elementary school at recess, the “monitors” are all in their coffee klatch in one part of the playground, only to sort out squabbles when a child runs over there to tell them. NOT engaged. Those non-teacher adults are there to fulfill a legal requirement, and the children aren’t dumb – they know that their classroom teachers DO NOT want to spend their respite/recreational time with them.

    The documentary ‘The War on Kids” shows that policies like “zero tolerance” and others create a VERY adversarial environment in schools. Most children do NOT behave like these little monsters in Greece, NY. There is, in fact, bullying that goes on from the top-down that is rarely talked about, and that I KNOW my son and his classmates have experienced – name-calling, shaming, exclusion from classroom activities for nebulous reasons, etc. That isn’t right either.

    What happened to Karen Klein was unspeakably awful. She is most definitely the victim here. The problems are multi-layered… the kids are out of control, the adults can’t or don’t put a stop to it. This can’t have been a first-time thing… were the children’s parents ever informed that this was going on? If it was my son, I would want to know about it LONG before things got to be like this!

    • Thanks so much for your thoughtful reply and for sharing your story about your 6th grader. It’s easy to demonize individuals but this is truly a complicated issue. You sound like a good parent!

  3. Rachael says:

    Thank you! I have been feeling this same way since the beginning. Why did she take a job working with young teenagers if she couldn’t handle it? Why did the school hire an incompetent bus monitor? Is there any training on how to deal with unruly kids? Why did the bus driver allow it to continue? And the biggest point, why weren’t these students reported by the adults in charge and punished by the school? Even the authority figures were unwilling to be and authority figure. This went on as long as it did because it was allowed!!! This does not appear to be the first time either. Thank you again for being the voice of reason. Also… 15k a year is more than full time minimum wage for a job. A bus monitor requires 4-6 hrs a day, 5 days a week, 9 months a year. (I’ll take 10 min to a couple hours of being called fat and ugly for half a million)

  4. We need to stop blaming the people who are victims of this kind of bullying full stop. No buts…why? If they only… The reality is this was wrong. There are all sorts of research on the benefits of children and seniors interacting. It’s interesting who we expect to be ‘dealing’ with children like this. This issue isn’t about a senior not being able to handle these children… what exactly do we expect to see? There is NOTHING that bus monitor can do in her defense. In fact, considering the circumstances…she did GREAT! She did not lose her cool. So maybe…the community can look at this and really start to create that village it takes to raise a child (but I doubt it). The parents of these children are also probably out there working hard.

    Why would she take a job like that?…because in this economy she probably really needs it. REALLY needs it to have to sit through that.

    There was a time we didn’t need bus monitors. I would be surprized if this behaviour hadn’t been reported previously…if these children don’t have a history of this. If they are allowed to behave like this a lot. So…again…the issue isn’t that bus monitor…it’s the behaviour, the use of the cell phone…the idea that being on that bus is an entitlement (at the same time…if these kids don’t use the bus…would they even be in school?)

    So the problems here started long ago when the need for bus monitors arose. You need to read “Swagger” by Lisa Bloom.

    • Thanks for your feedback. Of course it’s “wrong.” I agree! I have a column coming out tomorrow at TIME.com on this topic with more analysis of what I think went wrong, and why. I hope you will see that I’m not trying to blame the victim. But I’m not willing to write off the kids either. I believe there is a societal problem in which all play a role and there was a series of missteps and missed opportunities that doubtless led to the abuse — starting with the families, I’m sure, but also including choices that schools (and the people who control school budgets) make every day. In my view, it doesn’t help to write off 12 and 13-year olds as monsters, as we have seen in the media and with over the top pronouncements about “kids these days.” (Even thought bullying has declined.) Adults behave abominably in group situations, too, with far more dire consequences. This is a problem psychologists have long tried to understand. There are tried and tested ways to prevent and stop bullying – none of which appear to have been in place with these kids and the poor woman who was verbally assaulted. I stand by my view that she was in the wrong job — keep in mind that neither she nor the bus driver even reported the incident to the school authorities, which is outrageous. Other kids could have been – and probably were – mistreated, too. Many seniors do marvelous work with kids of all ages, of course.

  5. Reblogged this on Planning 2 Learn and commented:
    What would you do if this was your child? Your mom? Grandma? Your employee? Your friend? Your student?

    And…how did we get to this point?

  6. I look forward to reading your article tomorrow. I am still so impressed with how this bus monitored reacted. There is so much depth behind this story than the 10 mins. I still feel that the behaviour wasn’t reported probably because it was common and knowing it was their last day…reading more about it, the bus monitor knew the boys. And I’m really impressed that the parents of two of them stepped in and got the boys thinking and had them apologize. That the community expressed such an outrage and that some of the boys seemed to get it. THAT is what we need more of.

    I’ve lived in England for 5 years and have returned to the US 2 years ago. What I feel here is reflected through working with children in terrible situations on both sides of the pond.

    I hope this comes across well because I understood you thought this situation was wrong. So I will try to articulate this better…and ‘these’ type of children is to make a point. I think these boys are grouped into a larger view of all teenage boys…and I’m not thrilled about that…but I think people still make that grouping.

    I feel, there is an expectation that the people who work with ‘these’ type of children will be a certain type of person. I’d like to see that perception questioned because I feel the bus monitor was a good example of how to react to this situation. How did she not ‘handle them’ well? What did people expect her to do? I think her reaction was honest, heartfelt and sincere. She did not react like a video game. She reacted like a real human being. The boys were being mean and their words and actions ‘hurt’. No one threatened those boys…there were no excuses to have machismo or be defensive. In the end, the boys behaviour was unkind, threatening, unwarranted – there is no excuse for them and no blame should be laid on the bus monitor. I felt it was good for our communities to see a real human reaction to this type of behaviour.

    How many videos can be found of adults, like you said, yelling or arguing back with ‘these’ type of children? Heat begets heat.

    What I feel I see here…is someone who has sat through this time and again…she knew them well…and if this incident wasn’t reported…was it because it’s happened so many times before? If so, the question is why are they on that bus?

    They are on that bus, I feel, because we want those boys to have an education. We want them to see there is a different way. If these boys get kicked off the bus, will they even be at school? They are on that bus because we don’t want to write them off. But something has broken down because how can we have an example of how we want these boys in school and we want them to have strength, choices and be literate….and yet we end up with these boys, acting this way, in this setting for 10 mins.

    To me this video is less an example of a point of blame (it’s not the teachers, the bus monitor, the driver…the parents… ) I really believe that. It is more about our communities, our TV, media and the culture these boys are learning every day. I don’t agree with everything in Lisa Bloom’s “Swagger” but it’s a really good place to start the discussion and the thinking.

    Best wishes,
    Terri

  7. Read your article in Time. Very Good! The points you have made have been obviouse for years and the system has abdicated their responsiblity. This included the nice elderly woman that never reported the excalating behavior on the bus she was montering, the driver that did nothing and the school system that has chosen to deal with kids in this manner.

    I very much hope your Time article results in a discussion about responsibility (clear, frank and pointed) that is much needed in our society. BTW: I teach a class in abuse intervention and see the same thing in the domestic violence world all the time. Just amazing how blind we can be as a people and then act all surprised when we see something like this burp up into public view.

    I would love to talk more about this with you. My website is http://www.timeforequality.com.

    Thanks.

    Kevin

    • Thanks for the response, Kevin! I will definitely check out your website and would like to hear more about your work with abuse intervention. There are very few “accidents,” I believe, and most public health problems, including bullying and domestic violence, have clear antecedents and mostly well-known strategies to prevent or deal with them. Sadly, we lack the will, I guess. Many thanks.

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