Karen Klein talks about the bullying incident in her home Wednesday afternoon. JAMIE GERMANO Staff Photographer
GREECE, NY - The merciless taunting of a Greece bus monitor, captured in a cellphone video viewed by millions of people, cast a harsh glare on a low-paying, less-than-glamorous job.
And it didn't even show the worst of it: physical attacks, jewelry ripped from their bodies, extortion, sexual harassment - bus monitors say all are part of the risk they face every day when they climb aboard buses to try to ensure a safe, sane ride to and from schools.
The video of 68-year-old Karen Klein's cruel abuse, which had more than 2 million views on YouTube and led to a fund drive that raised $700,000, ignited questions about the role of monitors, including how much they can really do to protect against bullies, and how its victim, a supposed authority figure, could command so little respect.
Bus monitors can be crucial in keeping students in line and can be the first to spot trouble at home. And at least one student says that without the aides, bus rides would be chaos. But the job can be grueling: The pay is low, the hours odd and fractured and their power to actually solve disciplinary problems limited, bus monitors and union officials said.
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During 22 years on school buses, aide Betty Martin has seen a decaying notion of respect that has emboldened children. Threatening to write up a child or to call his parents aren't the deterrents they once were, she said.
"Now if you say that to a child it's like, 'So what? Tell them,'" said Martin, a bus aide in Buffalo who recounted cases where colleagues had earrings ripped from their ears and were subjected to other physical attacks. "You can't touch them, you can't do anything to them, and a lot of times, they have parents who feel the exact same way."
In Klein's case, students poked her with a textbook, yelled obscenities at her and threatened to urinate on her front door. One student taunted, "You don't have a family because they all killed themselves because they don't want to be near you." Klein's oldest son killed himself 10 years ago.
The video shows a teary Klein telling her tormenters to stop, only to be shot down by profane retorts and name-calling. But she didn't follow through, saying later that she figured there was no point in taking action because, at the end of the school year, it seemed unlikely anything would be done.
"I'm most sad that she allowed that to happen to her as a human being," said Cheryl Armstrong, transportation director for Greece Central Schools in suburban Rochester, where Klein worked until recently retiring. "She had the authority to do something about it."
Students who don't respond to a monitor's verbal commands are supposed to be written up for follow-up discipline by the school, transportation supervisors said. The bus driver can radio for help and even call 911 in extreme cases. After the video became public, the district suspended four seventh-grade boys from school for a year.
Other monitors viewed the Klein video and cringed, both at the abuse heaped upon their colleague and her failure to try to stop it.
Theresa Penkalski has been riding a bus with special needs students of all ages in Buffalo for nearly 18 years. She's never endured the abuse Klein did but she also has a system for laying groundwork to keep behaviors in check.
"I spend the first day evaluating the kids, trying to get an edge on who I'm going to be dealing with," she said. "You don't want to bombard them with rules on the very first day."
On the second day?
"Then I let them know that it's zero tolerance," she said. "I just never would have sat there. I would have gotten up. Let them know what they did was inappropriate."
Aides aren't on every bus, most often only those that carry students with special needs, very young riders or have had a history of trouble.
The state mandates training in such areas as safety and student management and yearly refresher courses. Many districts require additional hours. Aides also must pass a physical test every two years to prove they can get up and down the bus stairs, quickly exit through an emergency door and carry or drag a 125-pound bag 30 feet in 30 seconds.
Nearly all problems on the bus are relatively minor, like standing while the bus is in motion, yelling, eating, drinking or chewing gum or poking and pushing. The rest involve more serious issues of sexual harassment, bullying, assault and extortion.
Penkalski and Sharon Beals, a monitor for 25 years in Buffalo, share a common practice: Get the parents involved early and often if you think you're going to have trouble with a kid.
Penkalski also keeps her charges busy with spelling bees, math games or by reading aloud; Beals tells her kids she'll take good care of them.
"Sometimes they have problems and they talk to me and we can work them out," she said. "You know how kids are, they come on crying. I say, 'You don't have to cry. You see me, they know that I'm going to take them to see their mommy."
On 12-year-old E.J. Reed's Buffalo bus, the aide did her best to keep control this past school year, but there were a few who ignored her and continued to throw paper or act up when told to stop, he said.
If there were no aide?
"It'd be crazy," he said. "The kids would be bullying each other. It would be really bad."
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