No innocent bystanders

2008-09-09 00:00

A national newspaper this weekend reported on an incident of schoolyard bullying in Chatsworth where a boy was beaten and kicked by another pupil. According to the Sunday Times, the incident was captured on a cellphone camera and schoolgirls laughed and cheered during the assault.

The role of bystanders is a powerful but often unacknowledged component in incidents of bullying.

Bullies usually indulge in bullying behaviour to gain some benefit from picking on their victims. Generally, they aim to impress those around them and, often, a bully is trying to build a social network. According to Ken Rigby, an educational consultant and adjunct research professor at the University of South Australia, Canadian research found that 85% of bullying incidents in primary schools happen in the presence of other children. The way those watching an incident of bullying respond can influence the way the bully behaves in his quest to impress others. Because of this, bystanders wield a great deal of power in a bullying scenario.

Bystanders can choose to react to bullying in a variety of ways that can have either a positive or a negative outcome for a victim. Negative responses progressing from the least to the most harmful include:

• watching without expression i.e. just watching;

• giving non-verbal encouragement by laughing or smiling, thus showing enjoyment of what is being seen;

• verbally encouraging the bully to continue; or

• getting directly involved and participating in the bullying too.

All of these activities encourage the bully to continue the behaviour.

Bystanders can also choose responses that have a positive effect for the victim. These include:

• walking away from the situation, thus showing displeasure;

• telling the bully that this behaviour is not right or is hurting the victim;

• getting the support or mediation of a more powerful outside agency, such as an adult or teacher; or

• getting directly involved and defending the victim.

If more bystanders had the courage to stand up and say something about bullying, many such situations would either not occur, or the effect of the bullying would be diminished. Rigby states that in 50% of the cases where a bystander chooses to object to the bullying, it stops. By encouraging bystanders to help in combating bullying we can get everyone involved in preventing and dealing with this antisocial behaviour. This would make everyone in the community responsible for ensuring that this type of behaviour does not occur and that the vulnerable in our society are protected.

Rocky Mountain House town council in Alberta, Canada, recently passed an anti-bullying bylaw that makes it an offence to be a bystander and not try to stop bullying. Not only will the bully be prosecuted but those who stand by and watch can also be sanctioned. This legislation has been hailed as ground-breaking and it reinforces the important role that bystanders can play in either promoting or combating bullying. It also points to the lengths that some authorities are going to, to try to stop it.

I suggest that schools need to spend time educating children about their role as bystanders and the power they have. Because bullies often aim to impress those watching, we need to empower children to have the courage to make it clear to a bully that they do not see his or her behaviour in a positive light.

We need to teach children to critically question a situation and then to act with courage to change the behaviour of the perpetrator(s). If we are to eradicate bullying or any other abuse of power, then we need to educate children to stand up and fight for truth.

We can elicit the help of bystanders to fight the scourge of bullying in schools not only by informing children, but also by:

• identifying the different options bystanders can choose when they encounter bullying;

• celebrating and promoting the positive actions of bystanders by recognising their courage and compassion, for example, in assemblies;

• encouraging children to identify those who stand up against bullies so that they can be celebrated and recognised; and

• developing a “hurt-free” culture.

By involving everyone in the school community, we can go a long way to empowering victims and bystanders. In this way, we can reduce the incidence of bullying and try to prevent it from happening. We need to teach children to be courageous and to stand up for what they can see is right. We need to protect the vulnerable in our society and in our schools.

• Simon Weaver is the headmaster of Cordwalles Preparatory School for Boys, which has been declared a “hurt-free” school. It has introduced an anti-bullying programme and many other measures to combat bullying.

What is bullying?

Bullying is the continuous and random abuse of the power one or more individuals have over one or more victims who feel powerless to do anything about it. Bullying occurs wherever groups of people live, work or go to school together. According to, bullying includes:

• name calling;

• making things up to cause trouble;

• hitting, pinching, biting, pushing and shoving;

• taking things away;

• damaging belongings;

• stealing money;

• taking away friends;

• spreading rumours;

• threats and intimidation;

• making silent or abusive phone calls;

• sending offensive SMSes; and

• posting insulting messages on the Internet.

People who experience repeated bullying can suffer these effects:

• loss of confidence, which can continue for a long time after an incident;

• truancy (unwillingness to go to school can be a sign of bullying);

• compromised school or work performance;

• social rejection and loneliness;

• depression which can result in suicide;

• physical illness due to stress or physical hurt; and

• feelings of anger and revenge that could culminate in violence.

If you are bullied or you see someone else being bullied you can:

• tell the bully that he or she is hurting you or the victim;

• stay out of the bully’s way; and

• tell someone so that something can be done about it — a bully needs help and you need to ensure he or she gets it.

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