bus-monitor

School bus bullying: Why middle school kids can be so mean

June 21, 2012 at 2:15 PM ET

Update, June 22:

Three of the four boys who were taped tormenting a school bus monitor have apologized for their behavior in statements released through police, NBC News reports. 

Original story:

By Lisa Flam

They called her fat and ugly, said she was a troll, and their cruel, profanity-laced taunts made her cry. How could middle schoolers in upstate New York be so mean to their 68-year-old bus monitor?

The videotaped bullying that boys and girls inflicted on bus attendant Karen Huff Klein has many wondering how or why these kids could be such "narrow-minded monsters," as TODAY's Matt Lauer put it.

When kids reach middle school, bullying becomes more common and more sophisticated, experts say.

“Middle school-age kids are sort of an age group that is notorious for an uptick in the intensity of bullying,” said Dr. Gail Saltz, a psychiatrist in New York and TODAY contributor.

During the middle school years, kids are facing intense peer pressure, the pack mentality is strong and kids feel a growing sense of independence - all while their moral compasses are still developing, she said.

“It’s a time when they’re figuring out who they are by sometimes crossing the line and breaking the rules,” Saltz says. “Their insecurity drives a lot of cliquishness and defining themselves as better by making someone else feel worse.”

Related story: School bus monitor doesn't want kids to be charged with crime

Middle school is often the beginning of the “mean age,” and kids don’t always know when to stop themselves. “Their ability to assess going too far is not fully developed, so you do see a lot of potential bad bullying,” Saltz said.

Dr. Robi Ludwig, a psychotherapist and Today contributor, said bad behavior can take place because young adolescents don’t always realize the consequences of their actions.

“Kids can be aggressive and mean at any age or any stage but when kids are younger, they haven’t fully developed perhaps their ability to understand the impact they have on others,” she said. “It’s more of a self-centered existence. It’s a hallmark of adolescence, an over-focus on the self.”

Peer life is essential to kids’ development, Ludwig said. “If kids feel they’re not being successful among their peers, there’s a sense of sadness and isolation, so they could act out or be victimized,” she said.

For some kids, showing power and control makes them feel better, Ludwig says.

“Sometimes when acting out in anger, it’s to offset depression or anxiety and in other cases it’s kids who have been bullied, so it’s ‘go after the person that’s least likely to retaliate - go after the weakest link,’” Ludwig said.

Kids can also be aggressive and bully others to establish their place of power in their group, Ludwig says. “You’re making a name for yourself,” she said. “You’re sending the message, ‘Don’t mess with me.’”

Saltz questioned whether the parents of the kids on the bus had taught their kids about empathy, and noted that kids these days don’t always have the best adult role models when it comes to civility.

“Our entertainment is very focused on reality shows where people scream at each other,” she noted. “Our civil discourse is not civil. We’re interrupting the president.

“The idea of treating authority figures with respect is not something we’re particularly modeling for kids,” Saltz added. “This wasn’t a case of kids bullying kids. This was kids bullying an authority figure.”

And she said the kids’ lack of empathy was troubling, especially when Klein began to cry.

“That didn’t stir a moment of ‘Oh we’ve gone too far’ or feeling badly, but seemed to stir them to be even more aggressive,” Saltz said. “That is very concerning.”

For all the bullying that goes on across the country, Saltz said she was surprised by what she saw in this case. “I’ve seen a lot of bad bullying,” she said. “It’s pretty unusual to see a kid do something like this to an adult. I thought the level of sadistic behavior was pretty remarkable.”

Parents should use this case as an example for their own children of how not to behave, Saltz said.

“Talk about feelings and empathy and how important it is to you as a family that you have respect for adults, that you have respect for other humans and that this is completely unacceptable behavior,” Saltz said.

Related video: Kathie Lee: ‘Kid bullies are such cowards’   

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