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Thursday, October 17, 2013

Missing piece of the anti-bullying puzzle

The news this week out of Sydney, NS is evidence that the anti-bullying strategies so far implemented by the province have failed. Not only did one girl bully another, a second person stood by and made a recording of the bullying.

The incident as reported in The Cape Breton Post on October 16, 2013.

“The teen...was charged with assault after an incident at a local school in which she sucker punched another female student and then kicked the victim several times while she lay on the floor.

Drake said an added element to the assault was the fact the accused asked a friend to video tape the scene which was then posted to Facebook and other social media sites.

Defence lawyer Cheryl Morrison said her client denied asking a friend to video the assault. Drake said the friend admitted to being asked by the accused to film the attack.

The video was played Wednesday in court and shows the accused standing in the hallway and then running towards another female student and punching her in the head. The punch knocked the girl to the floor and the accused then proceeded to kick the girl in the head, arms, legs and chest.

What is missing from this article is the question: how could this happen in a school hallway with no one stepping in to stop the attack? The answer is the oft cited bystander affect-- people witness a crime but are unable or unwilling to help the victim. The bystander effect plays a large roll in the continued presence of bullying in our schools and our society. When good people do nothing, evil wins.

Of course one of the most commonly cited reasons for people not acting in defence of others is that they were afraid for their own safety or were so stunned by what they were witnessing that they were unable to act.

The approaches to reduce bullying in the province, that I have seen to date, have failed to address this key piece in the anti-bullying puzzle.

Bullying is a cultural emergency. Why is it not dealt with in the same manner as we deal with other emergencies? Where are the anti-bullying drills, the anti-bullying protection classes and the mock bullying roll plays that have proved so useful in saving society from fire, medical emergencies and criminal elements that use physical violence against us?

Learning by doing, not just reading or watching films, helps people react in a real crisis situation. When a person is faced with a dangerous or fearful situation they must fall back on pre-learned behaviour, like a muscle memory, so they can operate. Unprepared, the automatic response to danger is to freeze or run away. If we want children and adults to stand up to bullies we need to do more than read books about how to do the right thing; we need to offer hands on practice.

Asking a bystander to stand up to a bully in action is like asking a man on the street to disarm a bomb. Without the confidence of training, the bystander is not able to take on the job even when they know action is required. Teaching through roll play, how to take control of a situation and how to feel confident enough to do so, will help decrease the bystander effect.

In the 1960s the Freedom Riders took on racism in the southern United States. They did not walk into a mob unprepared, but they did not bring weapons either. They practiced nonviolent responses to an overtly violent situation; they didn't just read books or watch films about Rosa Parks. They had to learn physically the lessons they already knew in their minds; racism was wrong and these were the actions that would help them defeat that evil.

Below are notes from a nonviolent training session held in 1963 for Freedom Riders heading south (

3. Purpose of nonviolence training: This session to simulate common situations and practice techniques & tactics for dealing with them. Familiarization. Remove fear of unknown & not knowing what to do. Increase understanding of dynamics of violence through direct experience. Develop generalized response patterns/habits. Instinctive reactions.

4. Format of: Direct action: Plan, —>Act, —>Critique. This training session similar pattern: Discussion, —>Role Play, —>Critique.

These notes are useful today in the struggle to stop bullying by reducing the bystander effect. I propose anti-bullying role play experiences be adopted into the curriculum. Only through hands on experience will our children have the tools to stand up to bullies.

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