Sticks & Stones part two: the bystander

This past year, I saw a group of girls in my health class approach a boy and ridicule him for using big words. “You nerd! What’s wrong with you?” laughed the girls. I stood there in shock, but couldn’t muster up the courage to do anything at all. As much as I would have liked to help this poor boy, I was afraid that the girls would start to gang up on me, or that I wouldn’t know what to say. The more I thought about the incident, the more regret chewed at me. You should have done something. You should have tried to help, whispered my soul.

I think many of us have had similar experiences. We were bystanders; more specifically, we were passive defenders. We witnessed the bullying, wanted to step in, but didn’t. Why? We were afraid. The terrifying thought of being bullied ourselves convinced us into staying out of the way.

When most people think of “stepping in,” they imagine running up to the bully and shouting, “NO! Stop!” as loud as they can. However, getting involved doesn’t necessarily require a big show. In fact, a quiet intervention can often speak just as loudly as screaming.

One practical way to step in is to begin talking to the bully (or bullies). Were I in the health class situation again, I would approach the girls and engage them in a conversation. It doesn’t have to be complicated. The following are some great ways to distract the bullies:

  • “I like that shirt (or shoes, hat, etc); where did you get it?”
  • “When was [assignment] due?”
  • “Hey, when does the bell ring again? I forgot.”

Once you’ve started a conversation, just continue with it naturally. The bully may forget about what he or she was doing. If it continues, it’s best to confront the person. Sometimes it can be as simple as, “Hey, stop that.” Telling an adult is also a good idea. It sounds lame and weak, but adults have authority that us students don’t necessarily have. Also, because it takes courage to tell an adult, it’s not a weak or lame thing to do.

Always make sure to check in with the victim after-the-fact. Just letting the person know they’re not alone can sometimes be even more effective than confronting the bully. Talk to the person, ask if they’re okay, and if there’s anything you can do to help them. It doesn’t have to be a long tear-fest. Even a four-sentence conversation can really impact someone for the better.

The next time you witness something like this happen, don’t just pretend you didn’t see anything. Feelings and emotional health are at stake–are you going to let it slide? If you see it, you instantly have a role in it–the one who reached out, or the one who tried to throw a rug over the mess that bullying is.




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