(CNN) — Karen Klein is probably not the first face that comes to mind when you think of a poster child for bullying.
Yet there she was, sitting in the back of Bus 784 as it rolled through the streets of Greece, New York, on Monday afternoon. Four middle school boys barraged her with verbal abuse, jabbing her about her weight, attacking her family and chuckling as they made violent and graphic threats. Except for a few even-keeled retorts, the 68-year-old bus monitor brushed sweat from her brow and remained quiet, peering up front and out her window, seemingly waiting for her hellish ride to end.
Her suffering may have gone unnoticed had not one of the young teenagers posted a 10-minute video of the harassment on YouTube.
By Wednesday, police were interviewing Klein and her alleged verbal abusers. And by the next day, as the video began going viral, she had become a cause célèbre.
Her torment became a prism through which total strangers the world round characterized her experience as symbolic of everything wrong with modern-day parenting, children and more. Beyond anger, some expressed sadness for the seemingly defenseless older woman who, they felt, bravely suffered the slings and arrows flung at her for no good reason at all.
“I couldn’t watch the whole video — I don’t know how you live through it,” wrote one woman, Marykate, in an online post. “God bless, you are my hero.”
Yet bad things happen all too routinely, with people abused and killed most every minute in most every corner of the world. So why did one grandmother’s videotaped bus ride become so engaging and emotional for thousands of people she has never met, prompting them to issues emotional pleas to police and to donate hundreds of thousands of dollars?
Count Klein among those taken aback by all the attention. After hearing from CNN’s Anderson Cooper that Southwest Airlines offered her and nine others an all-expense-paid trip to Southern California to go to Disneyland, she described it as “awesome” but seemingly too good to be true.
“I still can’t believe it,” she said Thursday night. “I don’t feel like I’ve done anything.”
But the reaction isn’t entirely surprising to Sara Hodges, a social psychology professor at the University of Oregon. The fact the attacks are so pointed and Klein’s pain so apparent makes it easy for people to identify with as she soldiers through a torrent of verbal abuse.
“It’s such a clear case of somebody who is being bullied,” said Hodges. “She’s all alone, and she has no allies. … And what the kids are saying is so obviously hurtful. … It’s so compelling that you can’t turn away.”
And for all the statistics about the number of people bullied each year or perhaps news reports about elderly being targeted, people tend to respond more — and more viscerally — to a person being attacked and suffering with their own eyes, the professor states.
“We feel much stronger feelings for an individual than we do for … an abstract group,” Hodges said.
Max Sidorov was one of those people moved by Klein’s plight. Living in Toronto, he’d never met her but said the YouTube video “struck a chord with me,” a feeling that — as someone who’d been bullied himself — he couldn’t let go of without taking action.
“I felt very sad for Karen, and I felt I had to do something to support her in this time,” he said.
His first thought was to raise money through the site indiegogo.com, hopefully enough “to get her away from the environment and get her on vacation somewhere.” So he set up the site, hoping to amass $5,000 over the next month.
By Friday afternoon, that fund had more than $500,000.
Donors like Marykate gave not only their money but their heartfelt support for Klein in remarks posted on the website.
“Karen, I am so sorry that these children were so mean to you,” wrote one commenter named Mary.
Added a man, identified as W. Ronald, “I hope the recognition that thousands and thousands of people heartily dislike what those children did helps you feel a little better.”
Yet many on that site, as well as CNN.com’s story — which was shared on Facebook by more than 35,000 people as of Thursday night and had more than 6,300 comments — levied blame, as much as they offered support.
Many chastised modern-day children and parenting for fostering such behavior. Some criticized the bus driver for not halting the verbal abuse, even though Greece Police Capt. Steve Chatterton stressed that it took place on the back of a noisy bus, far from the driver. And a few even singled out Klein for not being more forthright to stop it.
“Children have no respect because they are not taught to respect,” a CNN.com commenter with the handle Rahzmahm wrote. “Ask the nearest child to you the meaning of the word and you probably would not get a sufficient answer.”
Police and town leaders in Greece — a community that has nearly 100,000 residents, three school districts and nearly 42 square miles of area yet still proudly sees itself as a town, one where things like this just don’t happen — talked about being peppered with messages from around the world decrying the episode.
While condemning the outrage, town Supervisor John Auberger tried to assure people that these four boys didn’t represent the entire community. He described his “town” as a place full of people “who are kind, respectful neighbors and hardworking,” much like Klein.
Online and in messages to school and police officials, many demanded that the youngsters overheard in the video be arrested. Chatterton said he’s “gotten e-mails from the United Kingdom (and) from all over the United States saying prosecute, prosecute.”
“I feel it. I feel it,” he said. “But we have to follow the law. We can’t tailor the law to meet this case because of public outrage.”
Police also said the seventh-graders had received death threats from people near and far. For example, Chatterton said, one of their cell phones “had over 1,000 missed calls and 1,000 text messages threatening him. And he is a 13-year-old.”
Hodges, the University of Oregon professor, said she’s not surprised by the communal desire for justice.
She said this could be explained through the “just-world hypothesis,” the belief that people think the world should be good — and when it is not, especially when a blameless and vulnerable person suffers as a result, someone needs to be punished.
“Clearly, something is wrong, this shouldn’t be happening,” Hodges said. “There’s a sense somebody needs to be blamed. … People feel the need to balance the scope.”
One person not calling for the four boys to be thrown behind bars is Klein. The bus monitor said that, right now at least, she does not want police to pursue criminal charges. But Klein would like to see them banned from the bus and athletic activities and, most of all, wants to make sure they don’t bully anyone else.
“I want to make sure that they never do this again, to anybody,” she said.