It was the video practically designed to go viral: a case of school bus bullying so vicious that the victim eventually was driven to tears. Insults that included cruel comments about weight and looks were liberally peppered with profanity. The twist was that while the bullies themselves were middle-schoolers, their target was the 68-year-old bus monitor Karen Huff Klein.
Three separate videos of the incident, totaling about 15 minutes, were shared on social media websites and mainstream media outlets. Members of popular news aggregator Reddit even held an impromptu fundraiser for Klein, collecting more than $650,000 — well in excess of the $5,000 goal to fund a vacation for her.
Still, many who viewed the disturbing footage are asking what would compel the four students who led the bullying to be so cruel, not just to a peer but to an adult.
Lisa Flam, reporting for NBC, says that experts think this kind of behavior is a common trait of kids of middle-school age, since this is the period in their lives they are first beginning to question authority and assert their independence.
"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."
Combined with a general lack of understanding of consequences, this could lead to children being excessively cruel, adds Dr. Robi Ludwig, a contributor to the Today Show and a practicing psychotherapist. Another reason proposed by Saltz could be that kids today don't have adult role models in their lives to set examples of empathy. This became obvious when children didn't ease up on Klein once she started to cry.
"That didn't stir a moment of âOh 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."
The four main perpetrators of the bullying have been identified and suspended.