A Teaching Moment: Karen Klein and Social Media

Karen Klein (bullied bus monitor) and Max Sido...
Karen Klein (bullied bus monitor) and Max Sidorov (indiegogo campaign creator) on CBC (Photo credit: k-ideas)

Karen Klein, better known as the bullied bus monitor whose abuse unfolded on YouTube and other social media sites back in June, reminded me a bit of my own late grandmother. Somewhat forgotten by society in her later years, navigating a world that was moving way too fast, and unable to defend herself with any ferocity.

“If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” was the best she could muster when a group of students from Greece Athena Middle School in upstate New York pummeled her with epithets, poked and prodded her, and even made a veiled reference to what must have been the greatest tragedy of her life – the suicide 10 years ago of her son.

The Karen Klein incident also once again focused a 10-times magnification mirror on the wide spectrum of human behavior that exists out there. And it reinforced what we already know in the 21st century – that social media has become the lens through which we often see ourselves and others.

“This is a glance into the heart of darkness of the human spirit,” said Syracuse University media professor Robert Thompson in an article published in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in the weeks following the incident. “But it’s not a serial killer, it’s our own kids.”

As if bullying Ms. Klein wasn’t enough, one of the students on the bus that day shot a YouTube video  of the incident, titled, “Making the Bus Monitor Cry.” That’s where social media stepped in, and when a hard-to-watch bullying incident that would never have come to light in another decade spiraled into a phenomenon.

Everyone loves an underdog, in this case Ms. Klein, so an incensed 25-year-old Max Sidorov posted a link to the video on Reddit, a popular social networking site, announcing that he’d created an account on Ms. Klein’s behalf at indiegogo.com, a “crowdfunding” website.

Once the link was posted on Reddit, the YouTube video went from getting a few thousand hits to 8 million hits, in little more than a week.

Sidorov’s fundraiser, called “Let’s Give Karen H. Klein a Vacation,” set a goal of $5,000, but much to his surprise, donations far beyond that goal poured in. More than $703,000 was donated to the 68-year-old grandmother, who earned $15,000 a year as a monitor. About 32,000 people from all 50 states and 25 different countries donated to the cause, the vast majority with $10 and $25 donations. Mrs. Klein has since announced her retirement.

Sidorov, who is now trying to raise money to help the victims of flooding in Russia, recently quoted Anne Frank in a post on his Facebook page: “No one has ever become poor by giving.”

While it can be argued that the funds contributed to Ms. Klein could have been used to help bullied young people (those arguments were raging for a while online), the fact is, that’s not how the events unfolded here. What did happen was a series of incidents that trained an important lens, through social media, on the issue of school bullies.

That can’t be all bad.

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