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The bullies on the bus

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According to news reports, three of the four boys who verbally abused their school bus monitor, Karen Klein, in a suburb of Rochester have apologized for their actions. All four have been suspended from school for a year.

That was too late, though, to stop the boy who videoed the taunting and posted it to his Facebook page. It spread quickly, sparking outrage far beyond the borders of Greece, N.Y. The online fund set up to generate a few thousand dollars in vacation money for Klein generated nearly $650,000 from donors around the world. The kindness of strangers countered the cruelty of neighborhood kids.

I have no desire to watch the video of those kids hurling insults at Klein; reading the coverage has been enough to set my mind in motion over how awful it must have been for her. Many of my friends have children near the ages of those boys. My own daughter, now 10, ran headfirst this year into the "mean girl" phenomenon. I watched her move from confusion to awareness as she began to navigate a new world of cliques. "Mom," she said, sighing, "I think some girls are only nice to you when they're not in a group."

Dismissing those four boys in New York as bad seeds seems easy enough: "My kid would never speak to anyone that way," we might imagine and say. My husband and I are trying our best to raise an empathetic, gracious citizen. When I look around, though, I realize how much effort it takes to model the behavior we expect. I can shrug it off and say that nobody is unfailingly kind all of the time, but how courteous am I when someone zips in front of me on Interstate 40? What did I shout at the TV every time I heard Tami Fitzgerald refer to Amendment 1 as the "Marriage Protection Amendment"? Come to think of it, how courteous is the language of politics?

We certainly can't assign blame to a single individual or institution for a systemic, centuries-old problem of unkind words and deeds. "Character formation cannot be taught," Maria Montessori wrote early in the 20th century. "It comes from experience and not from explanation." Thanks to the Internet and a proliferation of devices that allow bullying with the tap of a touch-screen, the pitfalls are infinite.

The responsibility to create the experiences that (hopefully) result in confident, happy and courteous young adults isn't the job of teachers or parents alone. It really does take a community.

I don't know the circumstances of the four boys who've been suspended, but I want to believe this situation caused them to internalize something that will shape their future character for the better. Some reports mention the students themselves have received threatening messages. The New York Times quoted the town's police captain, Steve Chatterton, saying, "Threats to overcome threats do no good." I agree with Chatterton: We don't owe each other threats, even when we do something awful. Breaking the cycle rests with us all, whether we're on the bus or just waiting at the stop.

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