The bystander. We’ve all been one. For better or for worse, it gives us a chance to make all the difference. To act in apathy, like in the case of the infamous murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964 — which prompted research on the “bystander effect”— or to act with a sense of responsibility like in the Stanford rape case last year, where two bystanders intervened.
The six-week long Bystander Intervention Training course offered for Physical Education credit at Sarah Lawrence College in collaboration with Westchester Victims Assistance, gives students the tools to learn how to step up and be an active bystander by interrupting potentially violent behaviors.
The course covers both theory and practice — from understanding issues related to interpersonal violence such as types of abuse and respect, challenging mainstream messages about gender, sex and violence, to empowering students with actionable and concrete ways to affect change in their respective communities.
“I want people to feel empowered that they can make a difference in every type of situation, and that it doesn’t have to be them that is the direct bystander, but that they can tell someone who will be able to intervene, tell a friend, to stand up or do something — because it’s really sad when you see how many things could’ve been prevented, but people were too scared to put themselves in that kind of a situation,” said Ariana Cember, College Campus Sexual Assault Prevention Educator from WestCop Inc./ Victims Assistance Services.
Cember lists “education, calling out things when you see them, not being afraid to say what’s on your mind — as long as you’re keeping yourself safe”, and “being open to changing the system that we’re all part of” as some of the ways we can combat rape culture.
Giving examples of things to call out, Cember continued, “we’re going to discuss this in my class — usually with any type of violence it isn’t just physical, it’s those sexist jokes that you hear, or you might have made in the past, homophobic things that you hear — that’s a form of violence. I think that people need to be more cognizant that those actions really do hurt, and they also enable larger types of violence. It’s hard because in this type of culture, people want to diminish things that don’t agree with what society says is okay.”
Citing the Stanford rape case as an example for the importance of education, she said, “banning hard alcohol [at Stanford] isn’t going to do anything, because rape and sexual assault is about power and control.”
“I think college is a good time to be aware and active, and people do have time to commit to causes they’re really interested in,” however, “breaking down all the things that we’ve learned from society like gender roles, honestly, the time to start would have been pre-school, or elementary school,” said Cember.
“How critical it would have been to have this [Bystander Intervention Training course] — even a small dose of education, attacking the ways in which we’ve been raised, critiquing why it’s harmful and what that leads us to do. I think it’s good that this is here, and I hope that more people will take advantage of it,” added Cember.
Emma Heisler-Murray, founder of the Sarah Lawrence It’s On Us campus chapter, said, “I think it’s amazing that the school is having it — I think everyone can benefit from taking the class.”
Should the course be made mandatory for all students?
Cember said schools “need to revisit their priorities in educating their students”, and that “it would be nice if it were mandatory — especially if we’re trying to diminish the amount of sexual assault on college campuses, colleges have a right to ensure that their students are safe by educating their students.”
Heisler-Murray concurred, “I think it would be amazing and super beneficial and to the community if it was made mandatory for all students. However, I also think consent workshops should be mandatory for all students too on an annual basis. I also feel that students as well as faculty and staff should take a workshop on how to appropriately respond to survivors and how to create a safe space,” said Heisler-Murray.
Whether the Bystander Intervention program becomes mandatory remains to be seen — but when asked what she hopes students’ takeaway from the course, Cember told The Sarah Lawrence Phoenix that she hopes “that they share what they’ve learnt in the class, and [that they] discuss that with as many people as they can. To share the message that there’s always something you can do. Bystanders can be very powerful, and not to overlook any type of bystander.”
“Most importantly, thank you to the two men who saved me, who I have yet to meet. I sleep with two bicycles that I drew taped above my bed to remind myself there are heroes in this story. That we are looking out for one another,” wrote the Stanford rape victim in her moving letter to her attacker, highlighting the power of bystanders.
With the help of educational programs like this, hopefully students can realize their power, look out for one another, and maybe even, be a hero in someone’s story.
Shane Tan '20