Not Just Another Bullying Victim: Why Does Karen Klein Matter So Much to Us?

June 26, 2012  |  

When you hear about someone being bullied, you usually picture the victim as a child—unless of course we’re discussing an episode of “Basketball Wives,” and even then, the victim and the perpetrator are at least in the same age group. But the case of Karen Klein has turned all of those commonalities on it’s head. The 68-year-old school bus monitor who was verbally abused and bullied by a group of seventh-grade students last week has not just gotten the entire nation in an uproar, she’s sparked action. What was at first a tiny campaign geared at sending this working woman on a much-needed vacation after the verbal abuse she endured has grown into a massive outpouring of financial support to the tune of $650,000 courtesy of 16,000 random Americans who don’t know this woman at all. They’ve only heard her story as it’s been reported in the media or contributed to one of the 7 million views on the Youtube video showing her being taunted on that school bus that day. The question is, why has her story resonated so much more than all of the other countless instances of bullying in this country?

There certainly have been other high-profile bullying cases, Tyler Clementi’s suicide at Rutgers most notably. That situation certainly gave way to the anti-bulling video campaign that launched around that time, but even then, the circumstances surrounding Tyler’s death had people on the fence about whether he was really bullied and what, if any wrong, had really been done. When it comes to Karen, the distinction that I think has garnered so much support is the fact that this woman was berated by kids more than 50 years younger than her. That time of realization doesn’t allow for the “kids just being kids” excuse so many teachers, parents, principles, and school officials use to justify the same behavior when it goes on between two seventh graders. When you hear the things these kids were saying to Karen and how they poked her stomach and called her names, you see this is far more than a kid being picked on on the playground. There’s more than an air of mean-spiritedness and an obvious lack of respect for one’s elders that suddenly doesn’t make people want to sweep this under the rug.

This situation also doesn’t allow for the dismissal of that type of taunting as just being “apart of life.” So many adults are bullied by their superiors every single day on the job, particularly in competitive, male-dominated industries, but subordinates are told to take it, to pay their dues, and to play the game if they want to excel. Mark C. Crowley of Fast Company says it’s the fact that Americans see themselves in Karen when they watch her cry on that bus, that has brought on this type of collective support. He says there’s rarely a person who can’t identify with being put down on the job, often by the very people you are serving and sometimes even protecting, as she was—and not to mention for a measley wage. Karen Klein earned just $15,000 a year monitoring those Upstate New York kids on that yellow bus.

“[M]any of us feel disrespected and under-appreciated for the work we do everyday,” Mark wrote. “Consciously or unconsciously, we’re projecting our feelings about our own jobs onto the experience of Mrs. Klein. We’re hurting at work and are suffering Mrs. Klein’s pain as that of our own.”

If that’s the case, then this story of support is much less about bullying and much more about the general state of unhappiness among the American workforce. One could easily argue that’s a far greater epidemic than bullying, but I don’t think the fact that the perpetrators in this case were children should be lost on the fact that this type of thing goes on every day. The thing is, little bullies grow up to be big bullies and so the motivations behind this fast-growing initiative are one in the same. If we want to stop adults from being berated on their jobs, we need to stop children from bullying one another (and even adults) while they’re young. What’s seen as harmless at 12-years-old looks quite different at age 40 in a seat of authority inside of a fortune 500 company.

There’s obviously an element of group thinking and peer pressure evident in this bus bullying situation, as evidenced by the fact that several children engaged in the taunting and not one came to the woman’s defense or thought to tell his peers to stop. But that type of behavior was learned before those kids got around each other on that bus and I think actually seeing and hearing the type of behavior that goes on among teens, pre-teens, and even younger is making people realize sticks and stones break bones but words hurt a lot too. For many, the reality of bullying just got real for the first time and if people are willing to put their money behind Karen Klein to right these kids’ wrongs, hopefully they’ll put their mind behind their own words and curb the examples of bullying they support consciously or unconsciously—and stand up against the real-life instances they witness every day.

Why do you think so many people are showing support for Karen Klein in this situation?

Brande Victorian is the news and operations editor for madamenoire.com. Follow her on twitter @Be_Vic.

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