Penn State Berks will hold the fall kickoff for its Stand for State program — a University-wide initiative aimed at empowering Penn Staters by providing bystander intervention training for students, faculty and staff — from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Friday, Sept. 1, in the Multipurpose Room, Perkins Student Center.
Training programs around the country are trying to teach bystanders to stop sexual assault, and now is when they have to be especially alert. Campus sexual assault reports are so common at the beginning of the fall semester, college administrators call this time of year the
In our last blog post, we addressed a common reason people have for hesitating to get involved in a situation where someone is harming others: fear for their own safety. This is a legitimate concern, as evidenced by the tragedy in Portland that we referenced, where bystanders who got involved were injured or killed. However, situations like the tragedy in Portland are rare compared to the everyday acts of bias or discrimination you may witness. Stories of extreme and dangerous – yet uncommon – acts of hate and violence are covered so widely that our perception of the risk of this happening is skewed. The result is that we are left feeling helpless, but it’s important to remember that in many situations, there is something you can do, and you can do it safely.
The word intervention in and of itself sounds like a person needs to commit to a bold, heroic act in order to be effective in intervening. The truth is that we can be very effective at removing a person from harm by recognizing the variety of green dots we can do—some of which are subtle and some are more obvious. Having a spectrum of behaviors to choose from helps us to decide which approach is best for the situation at hand.
Everyday experiences of bias and discrimination are going to sound familiar to you. For example, it may look like a store employee following a person because they suspect that the customer is going to steal based on their identity. Or it could be a friend making fun of a person with disabilities. In situations like these, the risk of violence is low, and the opportunity to make a difference is high. Many people witnessing behavior like this are uncomfortable with it, but a few things stop them from taking action:
- They don’t know what to do.
- They are afraid that getting involved could make it worse.
- They don’t know if other people will support their efforts or work against them.
This next section will help people get around these barriers by talking about the three D’s of Green Dot. This video explains the idea behind Stand for State, but in short, it uses a metaphor of red dots representing acts of harm in your community and green dots representing acts to disrupt or prevent harm. The idea is that if we can put more green dots than red dots on the map, then less people get hurt. Here are three ways to put green dots on the map:
Your Options: 3 D’s
- Interact directly with the people involved and express concern.
This does not have to mean a heated confrontation. This is probably what people think of most when they hear the word “intervention”, but it is not the only option.
- Get involved but don’t call attention to the fact that you see harm happening.
Your goal is to remove the person from harm’s way in the safest way possible, and sometimes distract helps you do that.
- Get the help of a friend or person who is better equipped to intervene.
In some cases, it may be more effective to ask a friend to get involved or to look for people with authority that can help in ways you can’t.
- Assess for safety first. You do not need to put yourself in harm’s way to intervene.
- Learn the signs that a concerning situation could escalate into physical violence here.
What it looks like:
Your friend says something that makes you uncomfortable–like calling someone a fag.
Throw some shade. Sometimes all it takes is a silencing look to get your friend to stop their behavior.
Say something. Even something as simple as, “What?” can clue your friend in that they should stop.
Get a friend to step in. If it isn’t realistic for you to directly address the person, you still have options. Asking a friend with more influence to say something to the friend doing harm can be more effective.
A stranger is harassing a person in public by yelling at them to learn English or get out of the country. We’ve seen this in State College (source).
Ask the person if they are ok. If you assess the situation for your own safety and find that it is safe to approach the person being harassed, then you can step in to ask them if they are ok.
Interrupt. Strike up a conversation like they are a long lost friend, and walk with them until they are out of harm’s way.
You don’t have to be a hero. Sometimes the best thing to do is simply disrupt the behavior and remove the person from harm’s way.
If it is not safe to step in, then delegating is a good option to take action without putting yourself in harm’s way.
Recruit people nearby by asking, “Do you think s/he is ok?” Approaching the situation with more than one person can be helpful.
Find a nearby employee or call the police.
These are just two situations in which your options for intervening are broader than directly confronting the person doing the harm. In the moment, it can be hard to think of options while weighing risk factors, but the top predictor that people will take effective action is practice. People who have practiced intervening in these situations are more likely to step in. Stand for State offers training sessions for students and faculty and staff to build those skills and to practice them. Our ultimate goal is that over time, the culture of stepping in when something is harmful makes our community incompatible with acts of harm, and less people get hurt.
On May 26th in Portland, Oregon, a man who was harassing two teenage girls turned his attention to three men who intervened, fatally injuring two of them and seriously injuring the third. These acts of discrimination and violence brought concerns around bystander intervention to the forefront of the minds of many, as we never know when a situation may unfold in front of us. Stand for State created this series of blog posts to address tips for risk assessment, strategies for intervening and avoiding doing harm, as well as the way bystanders are perceived by others may influence aspects of intervention.
Five Signs a Situation Could Turn Physically Violent
- The people are strangers to each other. If this is the case, it may indicate a more dangerous situation for all involved, including the bystander, than if the people involved will have to see each other again through work or their social circles. Also, if the person is hurting someone they don’t know, it’s possible the violence could turn towards a bystander. It’s also difficult to tell in this situation whether other signs of danger listed below are at play.
- Or they are intimately involved. Keep in mind that if a person is harming their partner in public, they are not thinking about the consequences of their actions, which makes that situation very dangerous. Police officers identify domestic violence calls as the most dangerous calls that they respond to. It’s also hard to eliminate the possibility that a weapon is present.
- There is a weapon present. The presence of weapons increases aggression. It’s also possible that the person carrying the weapon ventured out that day looking for an opportunity to use it. Consider the presence of a weapon an indication of a very dangerous situation and remove yourself from harm’s way. This does not mean that you still can’t help by getting to a safe distance. We’ll discuss that more in the next blog post.
- People involved are under the influence of drugs or alcohol. Any impairment can reduce a person’s inhibitions and make them disregard potential consequences. They may also behave in ways that are unpredictable, making this situation one that is better dealt with from a distance.
- This includes the bystander. If you have been drinking, get someone else who is sober to help.
- Things are escalating quickly. If this is the case, it’s a good time to remove yourself from harm’s way and intervene in ways that do not involve direct engagement—unless you are trained in de-escalation techniques.
- There is no exit available. Tragically, there was no exit available while the train was moving during the Portland attack, which meant that people could not remove themselves from harm’s way.
The Influence of Perception in Assessing Risk
Keep in mind that people who are targeted for bias-related discrimination are targeted often for things including but not limited to: wearing a hijab, speaking a foreign language, being in a same-sex relationship, or the color of their skin. Potential bystanders who share the identity of the person being harmed are less safe to intervene than a person who does not, because the violence could easily be turned on them. Therefore, we can’t assume that other people who share that identity would be the first to intervene because it could be unsafe for them to do so. Considering this, it really is everyone’s responsibility to look out for each other because we all deserve to be safe.
At this point, you might be highly motivated to intervene when necessary but are concerned for your own safety, or you may not feel ready to yet because you don’t know how. If you’re feeling that way, you’re not alone. When polled in the 2015 Sexual Misconduct Climate Survey, 94% of Penn State students see themselves as someone who would stand up if someone was in harms, way, AND one of the top reasons people report choosing not to step in is that they don’t know what to do. The good news is that there are things we can do, and that even though extreme cases happen sometimes, most of the time, intervening will not involve a physically violent situation.
Our next post will share ways to intervene when you are concerned about someone’s safety, as well as proactive steps you can take to keep your friends and peers around you safer by showing you don’t tolerate discrimination.