The Bystander: A Bully's Often- Unrecognized Accomplice
by Margaret Sagarese and Charlene C. Giannetti
A few years ago, an upstate New York newspaper headline noted that 60 high school girls and boys, ages 14 to 21, faced criminal prosecution for leering at and cheering on two brawling 15-year-old boys. The headline and accompanying story startled us. What we found amazing about this news item was that the police were holding "the human boxing ring" accountable. The "innocent bystander" status usually accorded people on the periphery of such violence was ruled out.
The furor over the Glenbrook North High School (Northbrook, Illinois) incident this past May also stripped bystanders of innocence. Even though no one watching or videotaping the vicious female hazing was formally charged, public outrage reverberated throughout the country. The senior girls barraged junior girls with mud, garbage, human feces, and paint thinner while beating many of them with fists, kicks, and buckets. After the videotape surfaced, everyone—from offenders to bystanders, from the school district to parents—was judged harshly for permitting the alcohol-laced incident.
Historically, in cases of peer-to-peer abuse, whether physical or emotional, the blame is laid on the belligerent boys or girls. The bystanders who hover, chime in, or squirm on the outskirts of the "mean" action are dismissed as irrelevant. Also dismissed are those who spread the tale of the victim's woe through the grapevine. In truth, however, this supporting cast plays a significant role in peer-to-peer violence.
A Canadian study of student bystanders to bullying episodes found that 43 percent of respondents said they tried to help a victim. The remaining 57 percent stood by and watched, but did nothing. Of that number, 33 percent confessed that they should have attempted to help a victim but didn't. The other 24 percent responded, "It was none of my business."
It is their business. Bystanders make or break bullying episodes. Consider this scenario: A 10-year-old boy rides the morning school bus. As he walks down the aisle, an older boy trips him, then takes his hat. The bullying boy then enlists a buddy and the two of them throw the boy's hat back and forth in a mean version of monkey-in-the-middle. The victim is now on the verge of tears as the bus rolls to the curb of the middle school. The other boys and girls on the bus have watched the whole episode, alternately laughing or nervously giggling. Some say nothing but their frowns and scowls imply they are seething inside or suffering vicariously. At the same time, the bully enjoys being the center of the action and the center of attention.
Now consider this: If the students on the periphery ignored the bully, or expressed no emotion, the incident would be far less satisfying for him. Every bully needs onlookers; without them he has no audience, and no opportunity to act out his power play. Therefore, those who bear witness to a lesson in ridicule actually control the situation as they enhance the bully's standing. They do so with their presence, their reaction, and, yes, even with their silence.
Whatever happened to courage?
How about someone, anyone, rising to defend the victim? Despite the number of students in that Canadian study who tried to help a victim, young bystanders usually don't confront a tormentor. Why not? After all, most parents have raised their children to help someone in trouble. That may be true, but early adolescence often finds these young people fearful of risking their social standing with peers.
During middle school, children find it excruciatingly difficult to risk opposing a bully. Between the ages of 10 and 15 particularly, children feel extremely self-conscious and tentative. They want desperately to fit in and are hypersensitive about doing anything that might either bring attention to themselves or put them "on the outs" with their peers.
In workshops we have conducted with middle school boys and girls we learned that middle schoolers fear the consequences of a face-off. That fear chokes back courage. They worry, "If I defy the mean kids, I'll be the next target." This turns out to be a legitimate concern because powerful kids who, in essence, act like kings and queens will punish those who challenge their authority.
There is another hitch, too. Bullying often is done by groups of kids. One kid against half a dozen tormentors is daunting odds. Furthermore, the bully is most likely one of the popular kids. According to University of Illinois psychologist Dorothy Espelage, the typical bully doesn't resemble that old stereotypical lumbering outcast. He is usually a popular jock. He's the one that coaches, teachers, and administrators know and often favor.
Most bystanders secretly want to halt the bully in his or her tracks. They think, however, that they have nothing to gain and everything to lose if they oppose a bully. That's not entirely true. Watching cruelty being inflicted on another and doing nothing is costly. The I-should-have-done-something self-talk that inevitably simmers turns into emotional distress. Suellen and Paula Fried, coauthors of Bullies and Victims: Helping Your Child Through the Schoolyard Battlefield, warn that for children who are spectators, "The conflict they experience can lead to feelings of sadness, anger, guilt, and shame." A girl who watches her best friend be bullied and chooses not to defend her is vulnerable to depression. A boy in similar circumstances becomes a candidate for inner turmoil, even rage.
So what's a boy or girl to do?
Boys and girls determined to undermine the power of the bully or bullies can use several tactics—some low-risk, some higher-risk—that will depose the ruling tyrants or at least defuse their cruelty.
Offering support on the spot is quite risky. But a tactic with few negative repercussions for the onlooker might be showing empathy for the victim at a later time. For example, let's again consider the school bus scenario referred to earlier: Later in the morning a child bystander could approach the school bus victim and say, "I'm sorry I didn't do anything to help you. You didn't deserve that." Another low-risk option is to squelch a rumor. "I heard some kids say that you were so scared on the bus that you wet your pants. I shouted back to these kids that they were lying. And I made sure that everyone else believed me."
The last resort for most bystanders—at least what many preteens see as a last resort, though it needn't be so—is to get an adult involved. Whatever happened to the knee-jerk reaction of people shouting "Fire!" to get other people's attention when they see danger? Why are kids so reluctant to run for help?
In a Hofstra University study of 1,000 middle and high school students regarding peer-to-peer harassment, the majority of students reported that teachers didn't help when students reported incidents of harassment. Instead they told students to toughen up, and that teasing is part of growing up. Sometimes, kids see bullies get mild punishment, not enough, however, to stop bullies' harassing ways. Only when administrators, teachers, coaches, and lunchroom monitors insist that they are serious about eliminating mean and cruel behavior will students seek them out.
To create that climate, a zero-tolerance school policy against cruelty needs to be clear. A sign should be posted in a prominent place in the school that says, "If you see anyone in danger from bullying, run and get an adult to help immediately!" Parents should talk with their children and ask them, "Whom would you feel comfortable approaching if you felt threatened by a bully or bullies or if you wanted to report a bullying incident?" Each child should have an adult confidant at the school with whom he or she feels safe enough to report acts of peer-to-peer cruelty.
Parents and educators need to correct their attitudes toward bullying—it's not a rite of passage to adulthood. It's physical or verbal harassment of one person by another person who usually wields some power over the victim.
Adults should underline these strategies for young bystanders:
- Don't watch. If you feel you can't intervene, walk away.
- Don't react emotionally with laughter or even a nervous giggle or snicker.
- Combat the rumor mill with the truth about a victim.
- Offer your support and friendship afterwards.
- Enlist an adult immediately if someone is in danger of getting hurt.
- Report the incident, time, and place to a teacher, counselor, school nurse, or administrator.
Parents, educators, and other adults need to encourage the bystander to act, or else he or she remains an accomplice to the bullying episode.
Margaret Sagarese and Charlene C. Giannetti are coauthors of four books published by Broadway Books: What Are You Doing in There? Balancing Your Need to Know with Your Adolescent's Need to Grow (2003); Cliques: 8 Steps to Help Your Child Survive the Social Jungle (2001); Parenting 911: How to Safeguard and Rescue Your 10- to 15-Year-Old from Substance Abuse, Sexual EncountersÉand Other Risky Situations (1999); and The Roller-Coaster Years: Raising Your Child Through the Maddening Yet Magical Middle School Years (1997). They also lecture nationally on cliques and bullies.