The bullying that bus monitor Karen Klein endured on a ride home from an upstate New York school was painful and egregious, but also shows how student harassment of teachers and administrators has become more spiteful and damaging in the online era.
Much attention has been paid to students who bully other students in class, after school, and on the internet. Less has been given to equally disturbing behavior by students who harass instructors, principals, and other adults.
It’s something that’s long existed; think ganging up on the substitute teacher. But it has become increasingly cruel and even dangerous as students get access to advanced technology at earlier ages.
In Maryland, students posed as their vice principal’s twin 9-year-old daughters on pedophile websites, saying they had been having sex with their father and were looking for a new partner. Elsewhere, students have logged on to neo-Nazi and white supremacist sites claiming to be a Jewish or minority teacher and inciting the groups’ anger. Others have stolen photographs from teachers’ cell phones and posted them online.
“The ways they provoke teachers are limited only by their imaginations,” said lawyer Parry Aftab, who described the above cases as just a few of the hundreds she’s handled.
Compared with those, what happened to Klein in Greece, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester, was mild, Aftab said.
Students poked the bus monitor with a textbook, called her a barrage of obscenities, and threatened to urinate on her front door, among other callous insults. 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. A cell phone video of the incident posted on YouTube went viral.
There are no data collected on how often students bully and harass teachers and other school authorities.
The most recent school safety report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the data branch of the U.S. Department of Education, found that 5 percent of public schools reported students verbally abused teachers on a daily or weekly basis. Also, 8 percent of secondary school teachers reported being threatened with injury by a student, as did 7 percent of elementary teachers.
“Is what we saw in this video occurring with many children every day with adults? No,” said Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm. “One incident is one too many, but we certainly have a problem where the authority of educators and school support personnel has been undermined.”
Certainly, students harassing teachers isn’t new.
John Ristow remembers an incident from his early days as a teacher’s assistant in Alpena, Mich. A student in the class was upset that he was singled out by the lead teacher for disrupting other students who were trying to study. When Ristow passed him in the hall later that day, the middle school student lashed out.