By Wendy Nelson, Ed.D., Inly Consulting Psychologist
I first heard of the term “bystander apathy” as an undergraduate student in an Introduction to Sociology class more years ago than I care to reveal to you. It is one of the more compelling pieces of research on human group behavior. When I heard about Phoebe Prince, the young teen from South Hadley, MA, who tragically took her life following a period of repeated brutal harassment (both physical and cyber) by fellow students, it was bystander apathy that came back to me as one of the contributing factors to her death.
In short, bystander apathy refers to the social behavior where people in groups fail to respond to emergency situations even when they are aware that a person is in need of help. The explanations for bystander apathy include assuming that someone else will help so you don’t need to act, seeing others not help and therefore believing that if no one else is helping that is the way to behave, and being afraid of what others who are watching you will think of you if you intervene.
For young Phoebe Prince, the apathy or inaction of some of the members of her school community to the cruel and repeated bullying she endured is directly related to her death. The failure of others to “step up” and help Phoebe and to help the students who were bullying her too, is at the core of what educators are attempting to address through bully prevention programs in schools all across our nation. The tragic death of this child should stand as a constant reminder, a repeat wake up call, and a beacon to guide every person not to be a bystander when anyone, adult or child or innocent animal, needs help. Our hearts break for the loss of Phoebe and for every person who has suffered because of bullying. We send our collective sympathies to those who knew and loved her.
Phoebe’s untimely death immediately brings to mind all of the teasing we might have endured in our own childhoods as well as the pains that have been inflicted on our own children by their peers. Moreover, I am reminded of not only being the teased, but also of being the teaser. With strong pangs of remorse I vividly recall a number of intentionally unkind words I said as a child and a teen without thinking about how my words would forever scar the other person and of the times I stood by mutely and watched it being done to another child. Yet that is how children think and act. It takes maturity to be able to continually keep the other person’s feelings in mind and children, all the way until early adulthood, are in the “me focused” period of thinking and behaving. Human nature is what it is. In the process of becoming civilized we will be uncivil to others. However, that does not relieve us as parents or educators of our responsibility to do everything we can do to foster “other thinking” and deliberately teach children to be kind and helpful.
We consider Inly to be a very kind environment; one where feelings are expressed, openness is encouraged, and acceptance is key. At the same time it would be unusual to find a child who has not experienced hurt feelings, exclusion, painful words and more, or who has not watched unkindness by peers toward other students. Over the past 10 years I have spoken to most children at Inly and elicited their views about bullying and teasing. It is the rare child who feels unscathed. We expect children to be resilient enough to weather some of this, but at the same time our staff is as vigilant and responsive as we can be to any unkind behavior. It is our policy to address it immediately and help children to learn to be kind to others as well as to speak up for themselves and their peers in the face of unkindness; no apathetic bystanders is our goal. We do the best we can, and yet, children say insensitive things all the time and it is a conscious and constant effort on our part to make Inly the most positive environment it can be.
For more than 10 years we have been conducting groups at every level to teach positive social behaviors. The programs called Bullyproof, Quit It, and Operation Respect focus on caring for others feelings, assertiveness and, most importantly, the role and responsibility of the bystander. We teach children to look out for themselves and for others, ways to solve conflict and when to ask for help. At Inly children first try to solve the problem themselves and with peer support and then with adult intervention. We believe that if we teach positive social skills from a very young age, they will be part of every child’s knowledge base and, although acting upon these ideas “in the moment” is a higher level of behavior, our students understand what the “right thing” to do is. And every day in every way we work to remind them of their responsibility to others individually and as community members.
At Inly we take every child’s word seriously and it is our policy to address each child’s concerns about unkind behavior from peers. This year every kindergarten child received instruction about “unkind” behaviors and practiced through conversation, games and role-playing how to be positive members of their class and school and ways to respond to challenging situations. In addition I consult with every classroom teacher about the social dynamics in their classroom, especially if there has been an incident where a child feels teased or bullied or excluded repeatedly. Teachers are present as observers of social dynamics both in and out of the classroom and constantly available to help students resolve difficulties and to be as aware as possible of situations that might be problematic. We watch and listen, oversee and intervene to keep students safe. It is our goal to address and resolve each incident for both the teaser and the teased as each of them needs our support.
As parents, we hope and trust that you keep the same values of kindness, empathy and attention to the feelings of others in what you teach your children. Please continue to help your children have the courage to speak up for themselves and for others and reassure them that you and their teachers will back them up always. Our youngest students are eager for adult help in problem solving so we frequently hear about the difficulties they encounter with peers. As children age, the peer pressure to conform and be accepted often interferes with their willingness to tell us about difficulties they might have which we do not observe. We rely on our parents to come to us if your child is disclosing information about a situation that is causing hurt to him or her, or to another student or if they are struggling with being unkind themselves. With our parents as our partners we strive to address every situation with the seriousness and sensitivity it deserves and not to overlook, ignore or turn our heads away from any child who is in need.
It is the saddest of events that prompted me to write this letter. As we continue to sympathize with the community that mourns Phoebe Prince, we can focus on the ways that we can make our community the strongest it can be and continue to give meaning to Phoebe’s life and her family’s unfathomable loss. We can’t entirely stop teasing and bullying at Inly. No school can eradicate these behaviors, but we want to reassure you that we are vigilant about the social challenges faced by students everyday at Inly and in every school. We will continue to work with our students, and as professionals to make our school a positive environment in which to learn and grow academically, creatively, emotionally, socially and physically. Bystander apathy contributed to a tragedy in South Hadley Massachusetts. At Inly we teach our children not to ignore the needs of others. As educators we will continue to actively pay attention to the needs of every child and make Inly a school that is a safe place for all, period. That is our promise.