Bystander intervention requires more training and research

Sam West

On a clear, sunny day in Panama City Beach last spring break, media reports across the United States erupted with footage of crowds of college students passing by as four men raped an unconscious woman. According to police, the victim drank from a stranger’s water bottle and was likely drugged. The 19-year-old had no memory of the incident but later recognized herself on a video of the attack.

But what the media was concerned about was the fact that not one person reacted to the situation. The footage reveals most of the passersby were college students on vacation.

“Everybody there should’ve known to step in,” Beth Howard, the University’s Title IX coordinator, said about the incident.

The incident was an example of the inaction that occurs in large groups of people, a toxic psychological behavior known as the bystander effect, where people are able but unwilling to help others in danger because of fear or social pressure. It’s one of the most pervasive and difficult issues surrounding sexual assault.

“You don’t know these people, so do you feel comfortable stepping in in that situation? I mean, what can you do when is it none of your business?” Howard said, explaining the uncertainty in bystander situations. “When do you feel comfortable, when is it safe?”

Research suggests a lack of education might be the cause. A national survey of adults conducted by the Opinion Research Corporation found that 65 percent said they suspected they knew a victim of domestic violence, but had no idea what to do to help them. A 2011 study by the Knowledge Networks showed that 58 percent of college students said they didn’t know how to help a victim.

These situations are where bystander prevention training can make a difference. As a part of the It’s On Us program implemented at the University last fall, the Student Government Association, Title IX office and the Women and Gender Resource Center teamed up to teach interested students how to recognize and prevent sexual assault. Several open trainings of “UActs with Courage” are held throughout the year.

Zoe Winston, the peer education program coordinator, described three steps any student should take if they see sexual assault, harassment or suspicious behavior. First, they must recognize that what they’re seeing is a problem. Second, they should communicate with others to ensure that they aren’t the only ones who are uncomfortable with what’s going on. The final step is to act with courage.

“Find ways to intervene – whether that’s getting someone in a position of authority, calling the cops if need be, using group intervention,” Winston said. “But [find] low-risk intervention techniques to where they can safely defuse a potentially dangerous situation.”

Jordan Forrest, who headed the SGA effort to implement the It’s On Us program, advised that if a friend talks to you about assault or harassment that happened to them in the past, the first step should be consoling and talking with them, and from there, “discussing their options,” such as therapy or contacting authorities.

“You can come to SGA and me, or someone there will point you in the right direction,” Forrest said.

Psychologists also blame the bystander effect on a collective diffusion of responsibility – each person believes someone else will help, so they don’t take action themselves.

“A lot of times when people see suspicious behavior or illegal activity, they feel like they don’t have any power or authority to step in,” Winston said. “They have this mentality that someone else will take care of it.”

If everyone on college campuses knew what to do if they witness violence and took responsibility for helping others, sexual assault would be eradicated. Incidents like the one in Panama City would never happen. At the launch of his It’s On Us campaign, President Barack Obama pressured young men in particular to take responsibility and stand up for victims.

“I want every young man in America to feel some strong peer pressure, in terms of how they’re supposed to behave and treat women,” Obama said in January 2014. “That starts before they get to college. Those of us who are fathers have an obligation to transmit that information. We can do more to make sure that every man out there – in junior high, high school, and college – understands what’s expected of them, and what it means to be a man, and to intervene if they see someone else acting inappropriately.”