MIAMI — The bullying that bus monitor Karen Klein endured on a ride home from an upstate New York school was painful and egregious, but also shows how student harassment of teachers and administrators has become more spiteful and damaging in the online era.
Much attention has been paid to students who bully students in class, after school, and on the Internet. Less has been given to equally disturbing behavior by students who harass instructors, principals, and other adults.
It is something that has long existed; think of ganging up on the substitute teacher. But it has become increasingly cruel and even dangerous, as students get access to advanced technology at earlier ages.
In Maryland, students posed as their vice principal’s twin 9-year-old daughters on pedophile websites, saying they had been having sex with their father and were looking for a new partner.
Elsewhere, students have logged on to neo-Nazi and white supremacist sites professing to be a Jewish or minority teacher and inciting the groups’ anger. Others have stolen photographs from teachers’ cellphones and posted them online.
‘The ways they provoke teachers are limited only by their imaginations.’
‘‘The ways they provoke teachers are limited only by their imaginations,’’ said lawyer Parry Aftab, who described the above cases as just a few of the hundreds she has handled.
Compared with those, what happened to Klein in Greece, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester, was mild, Aftab said.
Students poked the bus monitor with a textbook, called her a barrage of obscenities, and threatened to urinate on her front door, among other callous insults. 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.
Eventually, she appears in the video to break down in tears. A cellphone video of the incident posted on YouTube went viral.
There is no data collected on how often students bully and harass teachers and other school authorities.
The most recent school safety report from the National Center for Education Statistics, the data branch of the US Department of Education, found that 5 percent of public schools reported students verbally abused teachers on a daily or weekly basis. Also, 8 percent of secondary school teachers reported being threatened with injury by a student, as did 7 percent of elementary teachers.
‘‘Is what we saw in this video occurring with many children every day with adults? No,’’ said Ken Trump, president of the National School Safety and Security Services, a Cleveland-based consulting firm. ‘‘One incident is one too many, but we certainly have a problem where the authority of educators and school support personnel has been undermined.’’
Certainly, students harassing teachers isn’t new. But students are now equipped with cellphones, with video cameras, and a plethora of apps that allow them to easily share information among each other and post online.
One of the new ways that students are harassing teachers has become known as ‘‘cyberbaiting.’’ Students irritate a teacher to the point that the teacher breaks down; that reaction is then captured in photos or video to post online. A Norton Online Family Report published last year found that 21 percent of teachers had experienced or knew another teacher who had experienced ‘cyberbaiting.’
Then there are cases of students who have created websites and blogs against teachers and administrators.
In South Florida, one student created a Facebook group page called, ‘‘Ms. Sarah Phelps is the worst teacher I’ve ever met!’’ The student encouraged others to ‘‘express your feelings of hatred.’’
The student, Katherine Evans, took the page down but was suspended for three days and removed from her Advanced Placement classes. She later was represented by the American Civil Liberties Union in a lawsuit against the principal of the Pembroke Pines Charter High School, arguing that her right to freedom of speech had been violated. She settled for $15,000 to cover her legal fees, and her suspension was wiped from her record.
Aftab said such an outcome is not uncommon. Unless the incident occurs on school grounds, during school hours, at a school-sponsored event, or on school equipment, the district generally does not have jurisdiction to expel or suspend a student, although some courts around the country have ruled differently.
District administrators in New York plan to pursue disciplinary actions against all four students who taunted Klein, though police say she does not want them to face criminal charges, partially because of the onslaught of public criticism and even threats they have endured since the video went online.
A fund started for Klein has raised more than $500,000.
School safety experts and administrators say that they hope the incident will encourage parents to speak with their children about the damaging effects of all bullying and that school officials will reinforce bullying prevention, not just among students, but also aimed at teachers and adults.