It isn’t often that we see humanity at its worst and at its best in a 24-hour span. When it happens, it makes news. That’s exactly what happened last week to Karen Klein, a 68-year-old school bus monitor in Greece, New York.
A 10-minute video hit YouTube last Wednesday. It showed four male students, reportedly between the ages of 12 and 15, bullying, harassing, and verbally abusing the elderly woman whose job it was to keep them safe. In all honesty, I only watched about one minute of it—after about a minute, I had to turn it off. It’s like watching the Stanford Prison Experiment play out before your very eyes.
I won’t repeat the words the students used, which were graphic, foul, and mean-spirited. They called her fat, poor, and ugly. At one point in the video, she begins wiping away tears. She never lashes out at them. In fact, she doesn’t say much at all. They begin mocking her purse—a modest handbag with positive phrases emblazoned on it, phrases like “Love,” “Passion,” “Believe,” and “Dare to be remarkable.” In one of the few moments when she speaks up, she tells them, “I try to live by those words. I really try, but it’s hard.”
It was particularly hard for Karen when one of the students said that Klein doesn’t have a family because “they all killed themselves because they didn’t want to be near you.” Karen later explained to media outlets that her son took his own life 10 years ago.
In the moments after the video went viral, someone started an online fundraising campaign through IndieGoGo—a site I’ve written about before in this space. The idea was to raise $5,000 so that Karen Klein could take “the vacation of a lifetime.” When I first became aware of this story, $4,000 had been raised, with almost no media attention. By bedtime Wednesday night, the campaign had generated $95,000.
The following morning, Karen Klein was the latest media sensation. She appeared on The Today Show, Good Morning America, and Fox & Friends. She had confirmed an appearance with Anderson Cooper on AC360. Everyone wanted to talk to Karen Klein.
Celebrities began tweeting about Karen when they heard the news. Ellen DeGeneres wrote, “It breaks my heart. I’m so moved by the donations. Bullying doesn’t end when you grow up. It ends when we stop bullying.” Ryan Seacrest tweeted, “No one should have to endure something like this. This upsets me.” Piers Morgan wrote, “I think every one of those kids who abused bus monitor Karen Klein should be expelled. Let them pay the ultimate price for their behaviour.”
Southwest airlines reached out to CNN, saying they wanted to send Karen and nine others to Disneyland. As of this writing, the IndieGoGo campaign has raised more than $650,000, coming from more than 30,000 donors. As a school bus monitor, Karen makes about $15,000 per year. The donations that Karen will receive already exceed the salary she’d make in 43 years. And the campaign will remain open until July 20.
The kids who bullied Karen have apologized—and so have their embarrassed parents. The school is expected to decide their punishment soon. Just how much money Klein will receive after the campaign runs its course remains to be seen. It’s likely that she’ll retire. She says she’ll donate some to charity. Klein has 8 grandchildren, and she’ll certainly spend some on her family. She intends to invest the rest.
Cruelty can only be overcome with kindness. Bullying occurs in every city, every day. But stories like Karen’s drag the bullies into the bright light of day. We can only hope it improves their behavior.
Originally printed in “Pulse,” 06/28/2012.
© Damien Willis, 2012. All rights reserved.