Thursday, June 21, 2012

Parents Give Greek Tragedy to Bus Monitor

I couldn't bear to watch the whole thing.

After about three minutes into the 10-minute-long viral video of students in Upstate New York bullying their bus monitor, I had to close it.  Karen Klein, the 68-year-old object of some atrocious verbal and mental abuse, was already crying.

And the kids were laughing.

From kindergarten through the sixth grade, I rode a school bus in Upstate New York, too.  And while I was bullied a bit on the bus, I never experienced anything like what Klein did this past Monday on her bus in suburban Rochester.

Lord of the Flies?

By now, you've probably watched - or tried to watch - the infamous video, so I won't regurgitate the despicable behavior of those young punks who attend Greece Athena Middle School.  Suffice it to say that their words, actions, and intentions were utterly primitive and reprehensible.

Theirs typified a sort of behavior you'd expect out of kids who've been left to their own devices and entertainments for far too long.  Basically, the type of behavior you'd expect from kids who've raised themselves.  Or, more accurately, the type of kids you'd expect from parents who don't understand what the parenting role is all about.

Greece, New York, is an upper-middle-class suburb of Rochester, west of Syracuse.  Rochester has always been the corporate, affluent cousin to the grittier, manufacturing city of Syracuse.  Home for generations to such iconic brands as Xerox, Kodak, and Bausch and Lomb, it has developed a flexible economy capable of absorbing into many smaller yet innovative firms the job losses from years of corporate downsizing.  For New York State, that makes Rochester and its suburbs a surprisingly resilient and relatively robust region.  Rochester also remains Upstate New York's center for the arts, with its Eastman School of Music consistently ranked among the world's best, and its annual jazz festival one of America's largest.

Not that money and culture play directly into the brutish depravity displayed by the suburban kids on this school bus.  But it's not illogical to ponder the extent of a connection between absentee parenting - both parents working long hours at corporate jobs to afford their socioeconomically-successful lifestyles - and the basic training in humanity these kids have obviously not received.

Or is it the heavy exposure to technology with which these kids may have grown up that has calloused them to human emotions, and stunted their ability to respectfully interact with older adults?  Maybe this wouldn't have happened to Klein if her tormentors had been better skilled in socializing with other human beings of various ages, instead of growing up disproportionately skilled in keyboards, screens, and joysticks.

Maybe too much television?  Too many violent movies and music videos?  This isn't the first instance of juveniles behaving badly when their parents weren't watching.  It's not even the first time kids have bragged about their bad behavior online.  And it's not the first time society has wondered if we expect too much from parents, blaming them for the behavior of their offspring.

Some online commenters, posting feedback to the many Internet accounts of Klein's abuse at the hands of these schoolchildren, have had the temerity to actually blame her for not taking matters into her own hands and enforcing better behavior from the kids.  After all, some feedback writers have tried to reason, she was the monitor, and aren't monitors hired to maintain order on the bus?

Even if that argument made sense, what is the likelihood that if Klein did take the initiative to assert authority over those kids, the same kids who were taunting her would report her attempts at correcting their behavior to their parents, and those parents would flood the school district with accusations of child abuse?  That wouldn't have been the first instance of capricious parents trying to protect their own reputations by rising to the vociferous defense of their guilty children.

"Oh, not our little angels!  They would never treat an old fat lady like that!"

Parenting's Hard Work, but Somebody's Gotta Do It

No matter how you look at this ugly situation, however, can any of the parents be excused?  Sure, there may be contributing factors, like socially-stunting technology, that share some of the reason for why these kids behaved the way they did.  And social science can provide us with several behavioral models for why people will do things in groups that they might not otherwise be willing to do individually.  Peer pressure can undoubtedly be a destructive phenomenon.

But at the end of the day, doesn't it all come down to parenting?  Parenting that sets standards for how one behaves regardless of whether a parent is present?  After all, these weren't grown adults - or even teenagers - who had been exposed to radical stimuli and experiences beyond the bounds of parental controls.  These weren't kids who've been raised by wolves.  Even orphans, although we might excuse such anti-social behavior due to being deprived of biological parents, might likely be more sympathetic to others because of their own deprivations.

Although they may not appreciate the bulk of public opinion coming down hard on them, the parents of these kids indisputably share in the responsibility for how their kids treated Klein.  Not the school district, not even the bus driver, whom some have criticized for not stopping to help their monitor.  Who knows but the driver themself may have been in fear of these punks on their bus.

For their part, school district officials say they're investigating the matter, and will deal with whomever is responsible in a way that respects Klein, the law, and the families involved - as well as their own district's finances.  And speaking of money, a private online fund has already been set up, with Internet contributors, horrified by the treatment Klein received at the hands of these kids, having raised over $160,000 as of noontime today, ostensibly to send Klein on a "dream vacation."

Shortly, vacation will start this summer for these kids in Greece, New York.  For their parents, however, the vacation from parenting they appear to have had should now be over.

Indeed, some lessons are learned the hard way.

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