Bystanders No More: Teaching Kids to Respond to Violent Crime

by Johannah Cornblatt

Last Saturday night, according to police in Richmond, Calif., as many as two dozen teenagers watched the alleged gang rape of a 15-year-old girl outside her school homecoming dance in Richmond, Calif., but no one did anything. Police have arrested six people in connection with the attack, which lasted two-and-a-half hours. The girl was found semiconscious under a bench only after an individual who overheard witnesses discussing the assault notified the police.

Experts in the prevention of sexual violence say that although this was an extreme and particularly horrific case, the fact that the witnesses failed to intervene isn't too surprising. "They're not anomalies," says Dorothy Edwards, director of the Violence Intervention and Prevention Center at the University of Kentucky. "Everyone likes to think, 'If I were there, I would've done something.' But being passive is not atypical."

That's why a small but growing group of educators is trying to bring what's called "bystander education" to American schools. While sexual-violence-prevention programs have typically focused on the victim (discouraging women from walking alone at night, for example) or the perpetrator (reiterating the fact that no means no), the bystander approach emphasizes the role witnesses can play in either supporting or challenging violence.

The MVP (Mentors in Violence Prevention) program, which was developed in 1993 at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sports in Society, tries to teach students how to stop violence when they see it. The MVP program involves a two-day training period for teachers, coaches, and administrators, who then return to their schools equipped to train their students. "Most people think they only have two choices for intervention," says Jackson Katz, a cofounder of the program and an architect of the bystander approach. "One is to intervene physically right at the point of attack, and the other is to do nothing. And that's a false set of choices." As part of the MVP program, students sit in a classroom and talk about the menu of options—from getting a group of friends together to calling 911—available to them. At the heart of the program is a set of scenarios that allow students to imagine what they might do in a variety of situations. Each scenario comes with a list of viable interventions for bystanders.

Dozens of schools in a number of states are now implementing the MVP program, and similar initiatives are popping up across the country. The Green Dot program, launched at the University of Kentucky three years ago, has "spread like wildfire" to more than 20 states, according to Edwards. Green Dot encourages students to think of the "3Ds" (direct action, delegation, or distraction) when witnessing violence. While socially confident students might be able to address the problem directly, shy bystanders could make an anonymous phone call, send a text to a friend, or divert the perpetrator. "You can be just as effective by delegating," Edwards says.

For teenagers, who are often particularly concerned about social acceptance from their peers, Green Dot promotes distracting the perpetrator(s) as another option. One student who completed the Green Dot bystander training later prevented one of his friends from taking advantage of an intoxicated girl at a party by telling him that the police were towing his car outside, Edwards recalls. The friend, who had been in the process of persuading the girl to accompany him upstairs, stopped what he was doing and ran outside to check on his car. By the time he came back, the girl's friends had taken her home. "Most people want to do the right thing," Edwards says. "You can't just say to teenagers that it shouldn't have mattered if they were afraid to stand up in front of their friends—because it does matter. We need to give people a broader tool chest that takes into account their obstacles."

Research is still needed to determine the effectiveness of bystander-awareness programs in schools, but the initial results are promising. One study found that after the Sioux City School District in Iowa implemented the MVP program, the number of freshman boys who said they could help prevent violence against women and girls increased by 50 percent. The number of ninth-grade boys who indicated that their peers would listen to them about respecting women and girls increased by 30 percent. The Centers for Disease Control recently gave $2 million to Green Dot as part of a long-term study to see if the bystander-education program does in fact diminish violence in high-school populations. The study will involve about 28,000 students in 26 Kentucky high schools. Half the schools will receive Green Dot training, and the other half will serve as a control group. The study's hypothesis is that students who receive Green Dot training will show improved bystander skills, allowing them to recognize and reduce tolerance for violence among their peers.

Some experts in sexual-violence prevention think that more stringent bystander laws might make people think twice before walking away from the scene of a crime without so much as dialing 911. But Victoria Banyard, codirector of Bringing In the Bystander, a bystander-intervention program at the University of New Hampshire, says that parents and teachers should remember that "good" kids can become bystanders, too. So how can you prevent your kid from becoming a bystander? Banyard says that bystander awareness, in many cases, really needs to be taught. "We need to help people develop and practice the specific skills so that when they're in the moment, they're doing something positive to help," she says.

Katz says we can't wait for another incident like the alleged one in California to happen again before starting to think about preventing future crimes. "In the moment, a lot of the people freeze and don't think creatively," he says. "Educators and parents need to help our kids think critically about the different choices they have before the fact—not after the fact."