“We Are the Solution”
The first day of school at Central Kings Rural High School in Nova Scotia, Canada, was a nightmare for one ninth-grade student in 2007. A group of older guys kept picking on him and threatening to beat him up. The reason? The ninth-grader was wearing a pink shirt.
The next day was no different, and the story raced through the school. When it reached seniors David Shepherd and Travis Price, the two decided something had to be done.
That evening on Facebook, they asked friends to wear pink to school the next day. They also bought 50 cheap, pink tank tops to distribute in the morning.
“We thought, if we all wear pink, the bullies can’t pick on all of us,” says Travis. The next day, half of the school’s 800 students showed up in pink. “The school was flooded with pink!” Travis says. “It was pretty inspiring.”
Travis and David handed out the tank tops, and kids wrote antibullying messages on them.
When the bullied ninth-grader saw the sea of pink, he looked like a huge weight had been lifted off his shoulders.
Travis and David didn’t know the kid they helped. But their decision to act changed everything for that freshman and their school.
More than 70 percent of students say that bullying is a problem in their school. Studies show that nearly 30 percent of teens are bullied regularly.
But while bullies and their victims have grabbed the national spotlight, there’s a third party in the drama whose role is rarely talked about: the bystander, the person who witnesses bullying.
“The bystander is the most important player in a bullying situation,” says Dr. Kim Storey, a bullying-prevention expert from the Education Development Center (EDC) in Waltham, Massachusetts. “The bystander has power to step in and change things for the better.”
Studies show that peers are present in nearly 90 percent of bullying episodes—but more than 75 percent of the time, they don’t do or say anything. Bullies count on that silence, Storey says. But when students—or parents or teachers—turn their backs on aggressive behavior or mean messages, they send a signal that bullying is OK.
Risks of Intervening
We all know that when we see bullying, we should stand up for the victim. But it’s not always easy to do that. People often do nothing because they’re scared of becoming the bully’s next target. Bystanders have to decide whether the situation is safe enough to step in. Sometimes it’s not. Travis and David found a fun way to send an antibullying message, but the bullies of the ninth-grader were not amused.
“They threw chairs in the cafeteria,” says Travis, “and they punched a couple of lockers.” They slashed Travis’s and David’s parents’ tires and paintballed Travis’s house. They also made many threats.
“One of the kids e-mailed us,” Travis explains, “saying that he wanted to apologize to us in person down by a little secluded river. Yeah, sure, let’s just meet in a dark alley with nobody around!”
But Travis and David didn’t care about becoming targets. They had talked to the principal before bringing in the pink shirts, and their families supported them.
Despite putting up with the bullies’ backlash for a year, Travis wouldn’t change a thing. “I never regret doing what I did,” he explains. “I was bullied so much as a kid, and no one ever stood up for me. I didn’t want to see someone go through what I went through.”
Bystanders don’t have to put themselves on the line like Travis and David did, however. There are many things people can do that aren’t as risky.
Taking Action Safely
Experts say it’s not always a good idea to confront a bully in the act. “It might not be safe to stick up for that kid at that time,” says EDC scientist Ron Slaby.
“Bullying can happen at a highly charged emotional moment,” adds Storey. “It’s often too big to handle on your own.” Instead, she insists it’s essential to involve a trusted adult, like a teacher, coach, or parent. “Telling isn’t tattling.”
The easiest way a bystander can help is with small actions. When Daniella Toussaint started high school in Boston, Massachusetts, she swore that she would never let bullying slide. So when a pack of jocks posted pictures of a student on Facebook with vulgar comments, she convinced people to un-friend the bullies on Facebook.
Bystanders can also keep a bullying situation from getting out of hand. They can try to stop a string of mean comments about someone on Facebook, or refuse to laugh at a joke made at somebody’s expense. If the bully is a friend, the bystander can try to get him or her to go do something else.
Being kind to a bullying victim is also helpful. In Chaska, Minnesota, Alison (not her real name) was bullied repeatedly in middle school. She was pushed off her lunchroom chair and punched on the school bus. When 14-year-old Jonna Herbstritt learned about Alison’s torment, Jonna made a point of walking to class with her. They didn’t become close friends, but Jonna thinks she made Alison feel a little less lonely.
“A lot of times, the exclusion is the worst part of the bullying,” Jonna says. “Can you imagine going to school, and nobody even says ‘hi’ to you all day?”
Travis agrees. “Sometimes just saying the littlest things to a bullied kid really helps, like ‘Nice shirt’ or ‘Good job in the game the other day,’” he says.
Another way bystanders can stop bullying is to make mean, rude, and harassing behavior unacceptable in their school.
“A bully cannot endure in a school where everyone else—kids and adults—stands up against them,” says Storey.
An eighth-grade language arts class in Long Branch, New Jersey, tried that approach last year. The group of 20 students created a music video, “Bullying, We’ll Stop It,” to the tune of Enrique Iglesias’s hit “I Like It.”
Working after school and on weekends, the classmates wrote the lyrics, recorded the song, and shot the video with the help of a few teachers. The five-minute video shows a girl being bullied in several ways and bystanders stepping up to stop the abuse or help the victim feel better.
Calling themselves the Anti-Bullying Crew, the class posted the tune on YouTube, where it went viral. Enrique Iglesias himself linked to it on his web site. More than 100,000 people have watched the clip, and the crew was invited to the White House for their work.
The group enjoyed spreading the message, but they were also happy that the video made a difference at their school.
“The message helped reduce what was once an everyday problem to a rare issue,” says Justin Farnsworth, a member of the crew. “People began to respect others.”
Spreading the News
Travis and David’s pink shirts helped do the same thing. Their story became international news, and many schools in North America and beyond hold a pink shirt day once a year for antibullying awareness.
Through big acts or small ones, bystanders have the power to make a change, says Travis. “That’s what made pink day so special. It wasn’t police officers or teachers or principals. It was two kids that did this.”
Bystanders have a voice, he continues. “And it’s big and it’s powerful, no matter how small you feel.”