October is National Bullying Prevention month and many schools will participate by putting up signs with catchy slogans and asking students to sign pledges.  However if schools really want to make a difference in bullying prevention, they should educate students on how bullies are given power by their audience.  This power is called the Bystander Effect.

According to Psychology Today, the Bystander Effect is “when the presence of others hinders an individual from intervening in an emergency situation.”

The Bystander Effect

The Bystander Effect

This term was coin by psychologists in the mid-1960s after the infamous rape and murder of Kitty Genovese in New York City.  Genovese was raped and stabbed for over 30 minutes outside of her apartment while a crowd of people observed from a distance.  In addition to watching the stabbing, the bystanders did not call for help or intervene.   Another similar incident occurred in 1983 when several men raped a woman on a pool table in a bar in front of several witnesses (this incident was portrayed in the movie “The Accused” starring Jodie Foster).

Kitty Genovese


      The Bystander or Genovese Effect

Other Notorious Cases of the Bystander Effect

Shanda Sharer

On January 10th and 11th, 1992, 12 year old Shanda Sharer was tortured by four teenagers.  The reason for the abduction was in retaliation for Sharer “stealing” one of the teen’s girlfriend. Two of the teens were very excited about planning the murder, but the other two were disgusted by the plan.  Although two of the teens did not want to participate in the murder, they did not tell anyone or call the police until the day after the murder.  During the abduction, Sharer’s throat was cut with a dull knife, she was repeatedly beaten, strangled, stabbed, and left in one of the teen’s car.  When the teen’s realized she was alive, two of the ringleaders decided to take her out to the woods and burn her alive.

Ilan Halami

Ilan was a French Jew who was kidnapped by a group of Moroccans in 2006.  For two weeks the kidnappers brutally tortured him in a apartment complex where many of their family members lived.  In fact, many of the family members watched, but never called the police.  Halami was finally rescued, but died on the way to the hospital.

The Richmond High School Incident

On October 27, 2009, a 15 year old female was repeatedly beaten and raped by 10 men at a school dance while 10 of their friends stood around taking videos and photos.  Although school officials were close by (even the assistant principal was in an office across from the incident) no one was notified.  The girl was found later as students were leaving the dance.

The Bystander Effect

Reasons for the Bystander or Genovese Effect 

There are several reasons that students fail to intervene in bullying situations.

  • Psychologists believe there is a diffusion of responsibility among a crowd of students (students are more likely to intervene when there are only a few present).
  • Students may be unaware that a classmate needs assistance.  The failure to recognize the need for help is called pluralistic ignorance or where we look at others reactions to gauge our own response. So, if others are acting like there is an emergency then we may also react as if there is an emergency. However, if other students are acting calm in a situation then we may remain inactive.

Here is pluralistic ignorance in action. You do not understand a math equation so you look around to see if others look confused.  If you perceive that the other students understand the equation, you may decide not to ask a question. Now, let’s take pluralistic ignorance to the next level.  Let’s say you are a student at the lunch table and students are walking by and squirting ketchup in a girl’s hair without her knowledge.  You look around the lunchroom and see people giggling and taking videos of the girl. Since no one is acting like it is a tragedy, you  may assume that is okay because “everyone” is acting the same.

Now that we know some of the reasons for students not to act in emergency or bullying situations, we can educate students about the phenomenon of the Bystander Effect.

1.  If students find themselves in a situation in which they are not sure if it is an emergency or not, instruct them to go with their gut feeling and don’t look at others.  They may only be embarrassed for a moment, but they will have helped out a peer.
2.  If a student finds himself or herself as a target or victim of a situation, one should make it clear to those around that he or she is in trouble.
3.  Make students aware that if there is a crowd of people around then it is less likely someone will assist them in a bullying situation.  However, if a student finds himself or herself in bad situation, he or she can use this technique.  Look around the crowd and find someone who he or she can look into the eye and ask for help. By pleading with that one person, the student puts the responsibility of refusal or acceptance on that one person which increases the odds for help.

Educating Students
While “do not bully” posters adorn our halls, specific instructions on how students can intervene is not common in our schools. Students need specific steps on how to report bullying in schools, what words to say, and who to talk to about bullying situations. One model for bystanders is the situational model of helping.

Situational Model of Helping

This model of helping others was created by psychologists John Darley and Bill Latane.  The model contains five steps that can be taught to students to help their peers.
1.  Notice the situation
Students are often distracted in crowded environments (hallways, cafeteria, gym, classroom, etc.).  Students, for their own sake and the sake of others, should always be aware of their surroundings.

2. Interpret the situation
Students need to know the signs of bullying to be able to access danger.  Let’s go back to the situation in the lunchroom.  Students need to be aware of what constitutes bullying behavior by adults. This can be done by providing students with appropriate definitions of bullying, giving them examples from the news, and showing them everyday examples in your school. Make sure that students know that they cannot look to other students for cues.

3.  Take responsibility
Students cannot always count on others to step up to help their fellow classmates (“teachers or the administration should do something”).

4.  Choose an action
The biggest obstacle here is uncertainty of what to do when we are in tough situations. Just as we teach students what to do in a fire or tornado drill, we need to teach students what to do when they see potentially dangerous situations in schools.

Some actions can include:

  • Getting help from an adult.
  • Telling the person doing the harmful action to stop.
  • Intervening by removing the person from the situation.

5. Take action
Students tend not to intervene due to the fact that they do not want to look foolish or don’t want to violate a social norm (we don’t want our friends to get in trouble).  This phenomenon is known as audience inhibition and has to be overcome by students.  In addition, it is easier to intervene when it is someone you care about rather than a stranger.  Students need to be empathic and be able to put themselves in that person’s shoes.

Reducing Dangers of College Partying
Why Kids Choose Not to Intervene in Bullying Situations

Teaching Kids Upstander Behavior

The Secret Service reported that bystander behavior is important for preventing danger. Out of 37 fatal shootings since 1975, 300 people knew about the planned attack and choose not to report the perpetrator. In essence, the power to stop an attack or to let it happen comes from the audience.

Upstander Behavior
Beating the Bystander Response

Bystander behavior has a similar impact on the climate of a school. When students refuse to take responsibility for the behaviors in their schools, students feel unsafe and vulnerable.  However, when students stand up for students who are in a dangerous situation, it can make a big difference for the bullied student.  See the video below about the difference one person made for a special needs student who was bullied by others.

What is a Upstander

A upstander is someone who recognizes wrong and makes a decision to make it right.  There are many ways students can be upstanders:

1.  Help others who are being bullied by choosing to help.  Some ways we can help others is to go to them and listen, go with them to tell an adult, sit with them if they are upset.
2.  Stop rumors and gossip.
3.  Get your friends involved by encouraging them to be an upstander.
4.  Make friends outside your circle by eating lunch with someone who sits alone or showing support to someone who is upset.
5.  Know about your school’s bullying policy and what to do if you witness bullying.
6.  If someone is new at school, make an effort to get to know them and make them feel accepted.
7.  Refuse to go along with others who make fun of others.
8.  Respect others’ differences by developing empathy or respect for others.
9.  Join or create an upstander alliance.
10. Say something!  Here is a list of upstander one liners.

Upstander Strategies.
Upstander Video Resources
Upstander Toolkit

Upstander Campaigns
Choose to participate in Upstander Campaigns during the month of October to get out the message!!

Stomp Out Bullying Day-October 6th


Unity Day-October 22nd


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