This viral video showing the bullying of Karen Klein, a bus monitor for Athena Middle School in the Greece Central School District, near Rochester, N.Y., has created an international response and opportunities for teachable moments in quite a few different contexts. [Warning: The video contains offense language and content.]
Many of us who watched the video were shocked and horrified at the situation. The same initial question probably also arose in our minds: “How can this happen?”
As a department chair, I have dealt with some similar situations in which student behavior becomes out of hand like this. There are very rare circumstances in which no amount of intervention at any point helps. However, more often than not, student situations escalate to proportions of abuse because they are not addressed immediately when they start to occur. Like Klein, some working in education and perhaps parents, too, remain silent and hope the problem will just go away.
These behavioral issues are also not unique to middle school students. They can happen at any level of education, even within a postsecondary context. As our culture comes to terms with this and the larger issue of bullying, it is vital that those working within education take immediate steps to prevent another incident like this from occurring. We have more power here than we may realize.
Here are three steps educators and those working within education can take to hopefully prevent more incidents like the one that happened to Karen Klein.
First, at any level of education, students must be actively engaged in learning or education appropriate activities. If their minds and energy are actively involved in an activity, students will be less likely to act out inappropriately. Edutopia’s Tristan de Frondeville offered ten tips on “how to keep kids engaged in class” that were followed by 96 comments and suggestions from others (2012). Although these are tailored for K12 students in a classroom, the message of engagement, attention to learning styles, and classroom management certainly apply to postsecondary courses, too.
Granted, riding on a school bus is a different context; however, the concepts could still be applied. School transportation in states like New York already have rules, regulations, and operational structures in place that could be utilized for implementing focused activities for riders that would help keep them engaged for the duration of the trip. For instance, why not involve teachers who may be able to provide activities and tutoring via mobile devices during the before and after school hours while students are riding the bus? Why not get parents—known for their ability to keep kids entertained on long car rides—involved in helping out?
The second tip is that we all need to model appropriate communication and respect for others. Middle school counselor Susan Carney offered “five strategies to prevent bullying” by means of modeling effective interpersonal communication (20 March, 2010). Adults need to show kids how to:
• Be empathetic to others, especially those less fortunate than themselves. This builds confidence.
• Develop good communication skills verbally and non-verbally. Both victims and bullies often become passive or aggressive because they do not know how to express their feeling to others appropriately.
• Apply conflict resolution strategies to resolve situations before they escalate
• Develop assertiveness not aggressiveness so that students value their own worth as well as that of those around them enough to respect differences and be willing to work together, especially in difficult circumstances.
• Respect themselves enough to understand that they do not deserve to be treated badly.
Again, although Carney works with middle school students, these excellent tips apply to all K12 and postsecondary students, too. In dealing with student escalations, for example, I typically first allow the student or faculty member to vent their feelings, providing some guidance if their communication strays (e.g., into insulting or bullying others). I have often modeled for them what they could say and encouraged those I work with to respect themselves and others involved enough to work out their issues together. Often this works, and the student(s) and faculty who may have experienced an awkward situation are able to turn it into a positive one that fosters increased respect and collaboration.
The final tip is admittedly the most difficult. Educators and those who work within education must respond at the first sign of an inappropriate behavior. Many faculty, for example, will publish classroom rules in their syllabi, letters to parents, behavior contracts, posters in the classroom, etc. Students at all ages will test these rules. We know a middle school student who has been given a rule like “be respectful of others” will probably test this by making fun of a classmate, staff member, or teacher as the students in the Klein video do. Those of us who work at the postsecondary level have seen similar incidents among adults.
The problem is that ignoring or accepting these initial violations opens the door to further escalations. It won’t be long before the disrespecting middle school student will be taunting or bullying someone else in a more extreme manner. The college student who is allowed to disrespect another will also most likely do so again. Although this may still sound somewhat mild, other students view these exchanges and more will start following suit. I have seen faculty lose control of a class this way even at the postsecondary level. I have also seen student escalations occur because a faculty member who allowed misbehavior all semester suddenly decides to enforce a rule or expectation during the last week of class.
It is still early in the investigation into the incident with the middle school students and Karen Klein. There are many unanswered questions and at least as many lessons to be learned from this unfortunate situation. The main consolation is that such extreme situations are rare. Most people are caring enough to take action to right the wrongs done. I am thrilled watching the outcry for bullying to be prevented and the amount of donations for Klein to go above one-half million dollars today, enough for to retire. May she live happily ever after.
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