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.
For more on school bullying, see:
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.
“It was very nasty swear words that were extremely demeaning to my character,” said Ristow, who now is head of communications for the Broward Teachers Union in Florida.
Ristow held out his hand and said, “Stop.”
A security officer came by and asked if Ristow wanted her to take the boy to the principal’s office. He said no, deciding to resolve the issue directly with the teacher and student instead. He brought both of them together, they discussed how inappropriate the behavior was and told the student he would face a suspension if it happened again.
“It never happened again,” Ristow said.
That was in the late 1980s.
Two decades later, students are equipped with cell phones with video cameras and a plethora of apps that allow them easily to share information among each other and post online.
One of the new ways that students are harassing teachers has become known as “cyberbaiting.” Students irritate a teacher to the point that the teacher breaks down; that reaction then is captured in photos or video to post online. A Norton Online Family Report published last year found that 21 percent of teachers had experienced or knew another teacher who had experienced “cyberbaiting.”
For more on school bullying, see:
Then there are cases of students who have created websites and blogs against teachers and administrators.
In South Florida, one student created a Facebook group page called, “Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever met!” The student encouraged others to “express your feelings of hatred.”
The student, Katherine Evans, took the page down but was suspended for three days and removed from her Advanced Placement classes. She later was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit against the principal of the Pembroke Pines Charter High School, arguing that her right to freedom of speech had been violated. She settled for $15,000 to cover her legal fees and her suspension was wiped from her record.
Aftab said such an outcome is not uncommon. Unless the incident occurs on school grounds, during school hours, at a school sponsored event or on school equipment, the district generally does not have jurisdiction to expel or suspend a student, although some courts around the country have ruled differently.
Courts “tend to side more with the students unless you can show dramatic problems,” Aftab said.
Phelps, in her first public comments since the 2007 incident, said while kids make mistakes, it’s the responsibility of adults to turn them into teachable moments.
“We need to redefine and expand our definitions of bullying, particularly techno-spread bullying devoid of personal accountability and disseminated under the guise of free speech,” Phelps said in a written statement June 22.
District administrators in New York plan to pursue disciplinary actions against all four students who taunted Klein, though police say she does not want them to face criminal charges, partially because of the onslaught of public criticism and even threats they’ve endured since the video went online.
A fund started for Klein online has raised more than $500,000.
School safety experts and administrators say they hope the incident will encourage parents to sit down and speak with their children about the damaging effects of all bullying, and that school officials will reinforce bullying prevention, not just among students, but also aimed at teachers and adults.
“The schools can have consequences,” Trump said, pointing to counseling and disciplinary action. The bigger question, he said, is why a student would treat a bus monitor in a way they would not treat their own grandmother. “And that goes far beyond what a school can deal with.”