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Meanness goes viral
A YouTube video of verbal abuse by middle school students of a female bus monitor has stirred national outrage

At one point during the 10-minute video of a viciously bullied school bus monitor in the Rochester suburb of Greece, 68-year-old Karen Klein takes off her sunglasses and wipes her face.

"Karen, are you sweating?" says one middle school student.

"I'm crying," she responds.

"Yeah, she probably misses her box of Twinkies."

A profanity-laced YouTube video filled with verbal abuse and even stabbing threats against the mild-mannered Klein has attracted national outrage. And it has led many to wonder what would make middle-school students bully an adult in such a merciless fashion.

In the video, students deride her as being fat, poor and ugly. They point to her "flab," pick at her hearing aid and demand to know where she lives.

"Where's your address, so I can [urinate] all over your door?" asks one. "We're going to [...] break into your house and steal everything," says another.

Bullying experts and psychologists say the adolescent age of the students involved, the group mentality and apparent lack of training of the adult and other students on the bus about how to intervene in these types of incidents all contributed to the verbal aggression.

Throughout the video, Klein attempts to ignore the baiting students, at one point simply interjecting the age-old maxim, "Unless you have something nice to say, you don't say anything at all."

"How 'bout you shut the [...] up?" comes the response.

The story hits home in Western New York, not only because the incident happened near Rochester, but because of the high-profile death of Jamey Rodemeyer, the 14-year-old Amherst high school student who killed himself in September after complaining about being bullied for years.

The recent video, apparently shot by one of the taunting middle schoolers in the middle-class Rochester suburb, has attracted 2 million viewers, and an online request to contribute to a vacation fund for Klein has prompted enough donations for her to buy a new house and several nice cars. She had received more than $300,000 as of Thursday evening.

Catherine Cook-Cottone, a researcher with the Alberti Center for the Prevention of Bullying Abuse and School Violence at the University at Buffalo, noticed an obvious escalation.

She pointed out that the students addressed Klein as if she were of lower status than them. They called her by her first name and referred to her as being poor and fat, common peer-pressure issues for this group.

They repeatedly called her a "troll" and a "fat ass" and asked her if she'd gotten her purse out of a drugstore trash can. Apparently emboldened by Klein's passive response, the students then began making comments about sexuality and violence.

"Karen, do you have herpes?" said one student. "If I stabbed you, my knife would [expletive] go through you like butter because it's all [expletive] water," another said.

On the video, the group mindset also clearly seems to play a role, with roughly half a dozen students chiming in with their own insults with little sense of personal responsibility or inhibition, experts said. The students apparently enjoyed participating and having their peers laugh and pay attention to them. "They sort of, essentially, get rewarded, and they start egging each other on," said Bruce Pace, a clinical psychologist with Western New York Psychotherapy Services. "They are rewarded by the woman's response, and they get rewarded by their friends' response."

The children's ages also contributed to the behavior, experts said.

"Bullying is peak age at middle-school level," said Cook-Cottone.

"Kids, especially middle-school kids, they struggle with emotional and behavioral regulation," she said. "They're going though changes the way kids at the toddler stage go through them. It's that rapid."

Pace added that as hormone levels change, so do levels of aggression in boys. Children are fighting some natural tendencies, and without consistent and repetitive negative reinforcement against bad behavior, problems can arise, he said. Peer pressure also becomes a major issue.

"Their peer group becomes a much stronger influence than they ever were before," he said. "Your peers, what they respect, what they want, becomes much more important."

The kids on the school bus obviously consider it better and safer to side with the bullies than with the victim.

Since school buses are among the highest risk areas for bullying -- along with cafeterias, bathrooms and hallways -- Cook-Cottone said Klein would have done much better if she'd been given the training and support necessary to be able to intervene and put an end to the abuse at an early stage.

The fact that she hadn't been given those skills is troubling, Cook-Cottone said. "She didn't have training for how to deal with this type of behavior," she said. That's harmful, not only to Klein, but to the young students who now have inadvertently found themselves in the middle of a firestorm. A proper intervention would not only have saved Klein a lot of pain but also protected the children involved.

"They've received death threats," Greece Police Capt. Steve Chatterton said Thursday. "Their families have been threatened. We have custody of one of their cellphones, and he had over 1,000 missed calls and 1,000 text messages threatening him. And he's 13 years old. That must stop."

The students involved attend Athena Middle School, a 900-student school with a high student attendance rate and solid achievement levels according to state standards.

Greece Central School District officials said they are investigating the incident, identifying the students involved and working with the Greece Police Department, though Klein has stated she doesn't want to see the aggressors criminally charged.

"While we cannot comment on specific student discipline, we can say that students found to be involved will face strong disciplinary action," the district said in a statement. "We will continue our ongoing bullying prevention and awareness training to ensure that incidents like this do not occur in the future." The district has recently adopted the highly regarded Olweus Bullying Prevention Program.

Pace said students also need to learn the skills necessary to make them interested and willing to intervene in bullying cases.

"Unless you teach children to do things, they're unlikely to do them," he said. "These things can seem dangerous to a child. This type of learning has to be integrated in every program if you really want kids to learn it. It's the repetition that helps."

Cook-Cottone said it's unnecessary and possibly inappropriate for parents to share the video of what happened to Klein with their children. But that doesn't mean the incident isn't a great opportunity to talk with their kids about bullying solutions.

"What would you do in this situation? What could you say and still be safe?" she offered as example questions. "Have them come up with three things they could do to address this situation."

Everyone may wish to think that bullies are bad guys unlike their own children, but the truth is many kids often say hurtful things they regret later, she said.

"You need to focus on how do you make it right," Cook-Cottone said. "These kids are going to have a lot of regrets. They really will."

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

email: stan@buffnews.com