Folks have been predictably misty-eyed lately over the outpouring of support for Karen Klein, the 68-year old bus monitor who was taunted by 7th grade boys in Greece, New York. Within a week, more than half a million dollars was raised from outraged and sympathetic well-wishers who wanted to “send this woman on a vacation,” and the total money amount continues to climb. Anderson Cooper reports that Southwest Airlines will foot the bill for Klein and nine of her friends and/or family members to enjoy a 3-day trip to Disneyland. Klein is also talking about finally being able to consider retirement.
Sadly, last week’s exuberance about the power of social networking and (rather false, sorry) shock, shock! over the boys’ cruelty both ignore a deeper problem: how we have come to allow, even encourage, contempt for public workers, especially those in pink collar workspaces. In K-12 education, nationally, 8 out of 10 teachers happen to be women. The ratio would look slightly higher if we included other crucial staff in the statistics: librarians (the few that remain), clerical support, teaching aides, cafeteria workers, janitorial personnel, and bus monitors such as Klein. Traditionally, as more women occupy a profession, the lower its status tends to become. That “low status” translates into decreased value for individual testimony from workers, and increased objectification of worker bodies and experiences–especially from people outside the day-to-day workspace.
We heard little outrage, for example, when Senator Jim DeMint in Fall 2010 declared that “sexually active” single women and gays have no business teaching our kids in public. We hear even less about the pressure from corporate foundations (Gates and Broad, to name two) to shape public policy and discourse about classrooms, curriculum, and teacher “training.” Longtime faculty and staff voices rarely make it to the table–if they have a place at all, they get patronized, parenthesized, and drowned by bombastic sound bytes from billionaires. Real life work conditions in schools tend to be ignored altogether.
Then we view footage from Karen Klein’s incident and call it “exceptionally awful.”
I couldn’t get through more than about the first two minutes of the original footage, which was taken by the boys themselves and proudly uploaded to YouTube. Male voices repeatedly call Klein a “fat ass” and a “troll,” and ridicule specific parts of her body; some boys even poke and touch her while they jeer and ask her why she’s crying. For one thing, the video brought back still-vivid memories of my own daily bullying on claustrophobic bus rides to a “Christian” junior high where social cruelty seemed built into the culture. For another thing, it certainly seemed that–in the woman’s resigned body language, in her half-hearted comments to the kids–she’d grown rather used to being the punching bag.
When Klein quietly told one interviewer why she didn’t write up the kids, I wasn’t surprised by her reasons. As someone who spent half my career teaching in a “good” public high school, I have heard the mantra from colleagues before–and in my own head: Well, it was the end of the year, after all. And, by the way, when I do write referrals, no one intervenes.
If you’ve never worked in a school, it’s easy to dismiss this apparent passivity. But consider the bigger picture, where teacher and school-worker bashing seems to remain an acceptable form of domestic abuse. No one has mentioned that the only reason we have incident footage is because the bullies were emboldened (entitled?) enough to record their performance and share it online. In this case, ironically, their exhibitionism boomeranged, but I’m not sure that the current response indicates a serious backlash or re-examination of why this incident happened in the first place. We forget that the compulsory nature of school attendance only ties teachers’ hands when administrators and parents repeatedly disregard staff and faculty witness to problems, thus only enabling and perpetuating destructive behavior. How long did it take Karen Klein to absorb this lesson?
With all our supposed awareness about bullying and harassment in schools, it’s hypocritical to ignore how “adult safety” and “child safety” must exist in the same sentence.
The current media glow about how Klein’s bullying has “brought out the best” in good people fails to consider the larger pattern. This was certainly not the first time Klein had been harassed at the back of the bus; it was (luckily? unluckily?) the first time the participants decided to celebrate their mistreatment by recording and sharing it.
Tellingly, sexual and gendered disrespect is still often considered the inevitable short straw drawn by anyone who chooses a job in public education. One tween girl posted her lengthy critique of Klein’s passivity on YouTube. The girl sounds un-remarkably self-absorbed and oblivious in her certainty that there’s no way a grown woman should just sit there and “not do anything” to stand up for herself. But her comments raise a profound question that we rarely address when talking about school bullying: when teachers become inured to disrespect because their voices have been repeatedly dismissed, their learned passivity establishes a confusing model for students who don’t grasp the entire context.
Why does context matter?
Listening to Karen Klein and thinking about this girl’s response, I thought of other stories. We’ve seen plenty of videos where a kid starts recording after the bullying or the disruption has already occurred–when a teacher or other staff member may indeed be standing up for other students or him/herself, sometimes with all the emotion that may be appropriate in the human moment. It’s not uncommon for viewers to judge the staff member quickly and harshly, without knowing what happened.
We don’t have to look far, either, for cases of teachers who are fought every step of the way when they do stand up against egregious behavior simply in order to do their jobs. The cases accumulate, even as they are forgotten and under-exposed by media. A teacher in Orange County CA fought for her right not to be depicted as a victim of murder and sexual violence in student assignments. A teacher at Horace Mann in NY found herself in a battle against wealthy parents and administrators when she was defamed on Facebook. One case went all the way to the California Supreme Court before it was eventually settled after nearly ten years: An LA teacher sued Los Angeles Unified School District under FEHA for failing to stand up against sustained sexual harassment, threats, and libel directed by students not only at her but at a large percentage of the workers on campus. The plaintiff won her case at trial, but the judge vacated the jury’s verdict on the (imaginary) grounds that adults waive their civil rights when they accept a job working with kids. (Even more twisted? That judge was married to a teacher.) Years of court appeals followed.
Would people have sent Klein money if she’d stood up boldly to the bullies? The established narrative tells me we may subconsciously find it preferable to pity and then reward her for being a victim.
I’m glad that Klein has received money enough to leave her job, support her relatives with special needs, and take a trip or two. But the reality is that there are hundreds of Karen Kleins–sometimes suffering in silence, sometimes actually having to fight parents or their bosses for a workplace where they can teach kids math, history, literature, or science without fear or humiliation.
For now, we sickly soothe ourselves with an all-too familiar story: Get victimized, win a prize, and go away. That’s a problem, people. It’s not just Karen Klein’s problem. And Disneyland won’t cure it.