Bystanders may be best equipped to stop bullying

When addressing the problem of bullying, studies show the answer may be just standing by. According to experts, much of the power to stop the torment lies with those who are standing around watching.

Bullying is like bad theater, with the aggressor getting bigger and meaner as his audience cheers him on, or at least watches passively but with interest. "Eighty-five percent of bullying cases happen for the benefit of an audience," says René Veenstra, a sociologist at the University of Groningen in the Netherlands, who is quoted in an article entitled, "Behind Bullying: Why Kids Are So Cruel" by Stephanie Pappas. "Bullies want their behavior to be noticed. That means the reactions of bystanders is (an) essential piece of the bullying puzzle."

So, as we struggle to address the problem of bullying, which seems to be occurring with increasing visibility and intensity, we have to do more than identify the complex web of factors that drive social aggression. We also need to deal with the broader culture of conflict on campus, in the workplace, and online.

Mediation Works is one local organization that is doing innovative work to address conflicts in this community and all over Southern Oregon and Northern California, through its ChoicePoint and Peer Mediation programs. Both programs are predicated on the belief that people can be taught to solve conflicts on their own, safely and in a way that is appropriate for them.

In ChoicePoint, we spend three consecutive days of, say, a health class, talking to kids about their experiences with bullying, both their classmates' and their own. We talk to them about the power differential that perpetuates bullying behavior, break students into gender groups to explore how aggression manifests itself differently for boys and girls, and explore with them the responsive options they have if they choose to move from passive bystander to engaged ally.

Some young people have no trouble intervening when they see someone being targeted with aggression. They divert the bully's attention or otherwise change the dynamics of the situation so that the bully is disempowered. Others may choose to seek out a teacher or other authority figure to intervene. Still others will approach the victim later and extend sympathy or acknowledgement. As we have seen in testimonials from victims, this alignment is critical to changing the practice and lingering effects of bullying.

In Peer Mediation training, students are taught the principles of conflict resolution and problem- solving, and those who become peer mediators are given the authority to help bring students to agreement. Studies show that schools that have active peer mediation and conflict resolution programs have a 41 percent decrease in aggression-related disciplinary incidents, and a 67 percent reduction in suspensions for violent behavior. Participating schools were able to create a more constructive learning environment, which promoted higher academic achievement and greater long-term retention of academic learning. That is to say, all students increased their academic performance and work readiness because they felt safe at school.

While there's no one approach to solving aggression or bullying on campus or online, the message that bullying is unacceptable must be consistent and pervasive, and practiced throughout the workings of the home and school. "Please don't waste anybody's time by doing a 45-minute bullying assembly, and then putting on some piece of paper that you have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying," insists Rosaline Wiseman, author of the popular book, "Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World" (Three Rivers Press, 2003). Everyone from aggressors to bystanders and allies, parents to teachers and administrators, must speak the same language and be constantly mindful of the need to recognize and respond to aggressive acts and conflict. The ultimate goal is to create a safe and healthy learning environment that produces empathetic, well-adjusted young people, ready to learn and work. A watchful environment such as this requires that the audience cheers only for the victim, never for the bully, and sees social aggression and isolation for what they are: brutal and totally uncool.

Cameron McCandless is executive director of Mediation Works, A Community Dispute Resolution Center Inc.

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