What should be done with the middle school kids in Greece, New York who bullied Karen Klein, their bus monitor? The kids’ behavior included not simply expletive laced taunts about Klein’s obesity and age, but they articulated fantasies about stabbing her with knives, and torturing her. In short, it was pretty sick stuff.
The bullies recorded themselves and then posted the recording on one of their Facebook pages. From there, it was posted to YouTube and went viral within hours.
And let’s be clear, especially as “bullying” is often an over-used term that includes almost any words or deeds that someone doesn’t like being directed at them. In this case however, not only is bullying an appropriate term, it may be too nice.
So what to do?
I imagine some of you are thinking they ought to be subjected to the same harsh treatment. Having seen the video, I can tell you that the desire is not totally unreasonable. Not unreasonable, but not necessary either, even if you're someone who supports corporal punishment. To be clear, I do not.
No, in this case, busting these nasty kids should be linked to the other half of this story – the better half.
Here's why: within hours of the original YouTube posting going viral, a website was created to raise what its founders hoped would be $5,000 to send Klein on a vacation.Within 24 hours, more than $150,000 had been donated to Klein. As I write, the total is now over $200,000! To put that in perspective, that is 5 times the average annual salary for bus monitors in New York State.
A few kids may be messed up but this is further proof that that many more people in this world are not only decent, but generous. And, that's the first thing the bullies of Greece, New York kids need to know. They need to see that most people were so repulsed and angry about what they did, that total strangers are sending money to the woman they abused – lots of money.
Yes, these kids should be punished in a meaningful way -- perhaps we can start by forfeiting their right to ride the bus. Perhaps they should read all of the comments made on the website and elsewhere in response to their behavior and be forced to publish a public response of their own. Mostly though, I think that a word of thanks is more appropriate than typical punishment.
These bullies should be thanked for creating a secure retirement for their victim, a woman whom they hurt only briefly, but who will be enriched for many years to come. And more seriously, they should be forced to write thank you notes to each donor to the website that set up on Ms. Klein’s behalf. What better way to learn the potential rewards of decency versus indecency?
Forget Karen Klein for a moment, forget appropriate behavior for a moment, at the very least, these kids need to learn that their own interests will not be served by cruelty and hatred. These kids turned out to be losers – not in some broad philosophical sense, but in more than 150,000 material ways.
And, let's be honest, after all, which would these kids, or any of us, rather have; the momentary “bullying buzz” they got from their awful acts or the at least $150,000 that Karen Klein will likely receive -- even after taxes?
Though it may not appear this way, ultimately, Klein's ordeal is a good story – one which demonstrates that most people respond to the cruelty of others with kindness and generosity.
That’s the real lesson that these kids need to learn. And a lesson we need to keep repeating for the rest of our lives.
Rabbi Brad Hirschfield is the author of "You Don’t Have to Be Wrong for Me to Be Right: Finding Faith Without Fanaticism," and president of Clal-The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.