Bullies on the Bus?

Once again bullying is making headlines and this time around it's a 68-year old bus monitor in upstate New York taunted by a pack of middle-school boys wilding from the back seats.  "Making the Bus Monitor Cry," the video of the heinous behavior recorded on one of the boy's cell phones, went viral on YouTube. Over 2 million views. The public has donated over $650,000 in donations for Karen Klein, the grandmother and bus monitor, on indiegogo.com. If you've been unplugged for the last week or so you could be excused for missing the entire social media-facilitated saga not to mention Ms. Klein's appearance on the Today show or Anderson Cooper's offer to send her and nine of her friends and family members to Disneyland.         

Yes the middle-school boys displayed atrocious behavior. Yes they cussed, threatened and relentlessly humiliated her. They tormenting her over her son's suicide.  They should be punished. Their parents should be forced to watch that video over and over.  Better yet they and their obnoxious offspring should be forced to endure Disneyland with Karen Klein and her possee.  I'm thinking three days of non-stop giant turkey legs and It's a Small World.

However dreadful the bus incident it's worth asking whether it is in fact bullying as every news source has indicated though a commentator at CNN pointed out Karen Klein is "probably not the first face that comes to mind when you think of a poster child for bullying."  It is an usual case.  An adult verbally harassed by kids.  An adult in a supposed position of authority.  All captured on video.

Yet is it really bullying?

Do we want to call bullying any behavior that harms or even more difficult to assess potentially causes harm?

What constitutes harm?

How long does the defilement have to last? Several minutes? Days?

What about the status of people involved?

When does plain bad behavior turn into bullying? Where's the line?

The conventional stereotype of a higher status bully exerting power over a vulnerable lower status peer doesn't exactly mesh with the bus incident.  As a social psychologist by training I see it not so much as bullying but a classic example of group behavior or Groups Gone Wild, in other words the atrocities that people commit as members of groups they would never dare or really much think about committing alone.

It's also worth asking if Karen Klein was "bullied" because there seems to be several different connotations evolving.  There's the school yard bully using physical violence. There's the digital slanderer on Facebook.  There's the mean prom-queen wanna-be jockeying for social position. To confuse psychological researchers and school principals there's the kid who is both bully and bullied. Also, the enraged individuals making death threats against the boys on the bus. Surely this so-called bullying is a complex, multifaceted net of behaviors not easily summarized no matter how outraged we may be nor how large our donations nor how much we'd like to tie it in to the current political climate.

So I have to disagree with New York Times columnist Charles Blow who says "bullying has become boilerplate." As in same old, same old.  It's not a cut and dry model from the 15th century as I've indicated above but I do see his point that people have always harbored a propensity for cruelty. But Blow reaches in using the bus incident to argue we're seeing a spike of bullying in politics and American life (despite providing no evidence of this rise) because of our rapidly changing culture. Basically rich white people especially men being unseated and overrun by minorities.  Social scientists have been proclaiming this the cause of discrimination, prejudice and aggression for decades if not centuries.

Ye olde Concern for Their Social Status in a Rapidly Changing World Explanation doesn't really fit with the bus kids.

Frankly, I'm finding it difficult to understand how 13-year old boys on their way to school would be fearing for their own endangered futures in the new global economy (i.e. smart, educated girls from Asia and Latin America stomping on their career prospects) though clearly they should be. Obviously bullying is not a one-size, one-motivation fits all. 

Because I've recently visited the Tower of London and learned the meaning of hanged, drawn and quartered (don't look it up) the sentiment violence and hostility is more prevalent today in political affairs and elsewhere doesn't resonate with me. Nor deep thinker Steven Pinker.

Moreover, there are some researchers in fact who believe bullying hasn't increased. Some actually think it's waned over the last few decades but their opinions aren't dramatic enough to fit into the news story, especially not when there's the latest survey citing the number of kids bullied (though there's not room for the stats from 3 decades ago). Nick Gillepsie had an interesting article in the Wall Street Journal this past April suggesting there's no rise in bullying. Time's John Cloud also questioned an epidemic rise too in March, The Myths of Bullying

BTW, as far as Mr. Blow's column Bullies on the Bus, I'm having a hard time squaring the bus monitor's harassment with Republicans booing gay soldiers or Newt Gringrich lamblasting the poor. Though clearly outrageous, these are quite different incidents.  I hate to nitpick, he often makes good arguments but I think we need to clarify not muddy the definition of bullying.  Point out the differences among scenarios, the similarities, etc. I don't think we can make much head way in addressing it if we don't know what it is or what motivates it.  Or if we're talking about different animals so to speak.

I'm parsing over the definition (or many definitions) of bullying also because the media and the school counselor's summer reading list is teeming with reports of a resurgence of bullying, an epidemic of sorts.  Your school counselor probably also has a bullying prevention handbook to memorize too.  In addition to a relatively new industry springing up to teach educators and counselors how to prevent bullying (as well they should but it's unfortunately based on litte empirical evidence - if only we could learn how) documentaries are being filmed, organizations formed, songs written, op-eds written, laws written.

In most states the definition matters from a legal standpoint. Pinning down bullying is kind of like discrimination - we all think we know what it is until we try to define it let alone establish legal protection from it or ever more cumbersome, prosecute it. Personally I spent at least five years thinking, arguing and writing about the definition of discrimination and easily could have spent five more had I not mercifully finished my dissertation.

Go ahead, try. Better yet, try to define bullying. 

New Jersey says it is not only a harmful act towards another child at school but as any behavior that "infringes" on another child's "rights" at school.  So yes my state casts a wide, ambiguous net when it comes to identifying bullies.  In fact The Anti-Bullying Bill of Rights here in Jersey is considered to be the toughest anti-bullying law in the country. 

What do you think constitutes bullying?


Anonymous said...

I can tell you right now that I was relentlessly bullied in school as a child, but back then they didn't call "relational aggression" bullying.

As a result, I thought it was my fault well into my 20s. At the time, my parents put me into group therapy because it seemed like there was something wrong with me.

Needless to say, when we moved it suddenly became apparent that it hadn't been me.

I guess if you want to use "relational aggression" as a separate term from bullying, that's fine, but it's about time it had a name.

I don't know how many other girls grew up thinking it was their fault, and I don't know how many women have gone their adult lives with a lingering distrust of other women as a result.

I do know that suffering the Silent Treatment from about 40 of the 45 girls in your class for 10 years causes lasting effects, and that at the time, I desperately envied the boys who just got beat up by their bullies. At least the boys' Omega wolf (so to speak) was still part of the pack.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Hi Anony, thanks for sharing what was obviously a very difficult time. When I hear experiences like yours I can't help but question whether we do a disservice to those suffering significant on-going bullying when we call more minor mean behavior bullying too.

"Relational aggression?" Only a psychologist, eh?

You make a very good point about gender differences in aggression. At least now the differences are recognized with the more verbal/emotional harassment associated with girls (relational?), like their male counterpart's physical aggression, also perceived as a forn of bullying.

My son as a preschooler was subject to some verbal harassment by a girl in his class. The teachers really didn't see it bc of course it's much easier to conceal than phyiscal slights. I don't think they perceived it in the same vein as physical aggression either. The physical was punished to a greater degree than the verbal which also seemed unfair to me.

Anonymous said...

I would like to add that I don't feel like bullying is on the increase in America.

I do think that we're starting to recognize certain behaviors as bullying, such as the relational aggression I experienced.

And while physical bullying is a big deal and should always be stopped, I do think what I experienced was bullying.

If you're seeking to throw some behaviors out from under the bullying umbrella, that's fine, just don't throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I'd liken bullying to the "autism increase" as possibly being more of a case of expanding definition rather than expanding incidence.

That said, electronic communication has given bullies unprecedented access to their victims.

At least when I was a kid, they couldn't hurt me anymore when I got home from school.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

More good points. I too in thinking about this topic was reminded of the changing definition/nature of autism too over the decades. I also have thought the perceived increase of bullying is due to changes in definition and awareness than actual incidence.

Victims of cyber bullying experience more depression too than face to face victims. Certainly a cause for concern. The internet has given not only more access but a great lifespan and audience for the taunts, threats, etc.

I don't mean to minimize the misery of those experiencing bullying. In fact to some degree I veered towards psychology because of it. Though I never felt bullied I'm still troubled by behaviors I witnessed at a kid including times I now as an adult wished I'd been able to prevent. I'm still reluctant to join groups especially social ones because of it.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

Anonymous, do you think those middle school boys bullied Karen Klein? Should it be called bullying?

Anonymous said...

I haven't seen the video.

However, my conclusion just from the news accounts (I've read a few) is that yes, it was bullying. It was a sustained action, not just one rude comment.

What's interesting to me is that these boys *were* in a position of power over her, even though she was ostensibly in charge and the adult, while they were students.

How did that situation arise? Did a comment or two in previous similar settings (which would not be bullying) go unchecked, leading them to the very rational conclusion that they'd get away with it? Would she have been able to prevent it by taking some action at some point before it escalated?

But of course we have to be careful not to blame the victim in asking these sorts of questions too. What they said is not her fault.

Polly Palumbo, Ph.D. said...

I wondered about previous incidents too. Of course I also wondered what the boys were doing to other kids on the bus and at school. Hard to imagine it was an isolated incident.

mahesh said...

The incident with the child between the age group of 12-16 is more likely to happen. in Asia and other developing countries the is more. In the society this type incident not come out due to the fear and lack awareness