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Abusive life of school bus monitors

BUFFALO -- The merciless taunting of a school bus monitor, captured in a cellphone video viewed by millions of people, cast a harsh glare on a low-paying, less-than-glamorous job.

And it didn't even show the worst of it -- physical attacks, jewelry ripped from their bodies, extortion, sexual harassment that bus monitors say are part of the risk they face every day when they climb aboard buses to try to ensure that students have a safe ride to and from schools.

The video of Karen Klein's abuse got more than 2 million views on YouTube and led to a fund drive for her that raised $700,000. It also ignited questions about the role of monitors, including how much they can really do to protect against bullies, and how a supposed authority figure like Klein, 68, could command so little respect.

During 22 years on school buses, aide Betty Martin has seen children emboldened by a decaying notion of respect. Threatening to write up a child or to call parents aren't the deterrents they once were, she said.

"Now if you say that to a child, it's like, 'So what? Tell them,' " said Martin, a bus aide in Buffalo who recounted cases of colleagues having earrings ripped off and being subjected to other physical attacks. "You can't touch them, you can't do anything to them, and a lot of times, they have parents who feel the exact same way."

In Klein's case, students poked her with a textbook, yelled obscenities at her and threatened to urinate on her front door. 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.

The video shows a teary Klein telling her tormentors to stop, only to be shot down by profane retorts and name-calling. But she didn't follow through, saying later that she figured there was no point in taking action because, at the end of the school year, it seemed unlikely anything would be done.

Students who don't respond to a monitor's verbal commands are supposed to be written up for discipline by the school, transportation supervisors said. The bus driver can radio for help and call 911 in extreme cases. After the video of Klein became public, four seventh-grade boys were suspended from school for a year.

Theresa Penkalski has been riding a bus with special needs students of all ages in Buffalo for nearly 18 years. She has a system for keeping student behaviors in check.

"I spend the first day evaluating the kids, trying to get an edge on who I'm going to be dealing with," she said. "You don't want to bombard them with rules on the very first day." On the second day, she lets them know she has a "zero tolerance" for abusive behavior.

The state mandates training in safety and student management and yearly refresher courses for bus monitors. Aides also must pass a physical test every two years to prove they can get up and down the bus stairs, quickly exit through an emergency door and carry or drag a 125-pound bag 30 feet in 30 seconds.

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