School Climate & Safety Opinion

Leaders Cannot Be Bystanders

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — January 29, 2013 3 min read
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In the February issue of Kappan, Charol Shakeshaft, Professor of Educational Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University, wrote an article about knowing the warning signs of educator sexual misconduct. She states, “I coined the phrase educator sexual misconduct at least a decade ago because it brackets a range of inappropriate to criminal sexual behaviors and includes verbal, visual, and physical misconduct. Some of this behavior is criminal, some not. But all of the behaviors are unacceptable when directed by an adult, especially by a school-based authority figure, toward a student (p.9).” Until recently we have punished the bullies and counseled the victims, but now we must look at the bystander behavior. Shakeshaft states, “While the predators are the adults who abuse, adult bystanders also contribute to an unsafe environment (p.9).”

In our January 20th blog post entitled Diversity and the Moral Compass, we reflected on the lessons from Penn State. People knew what Jerry Sandusky was doing. Why did no one stand up for the children? Why do professionals stand by rather than stand up and step in? People both in and out of the Catholic Church knew of abuses being committed by priests. Why didn’t someone stand up? There are countless examples of abuse going unreported in schools, but why?

Shakeshaft and others are shedding light on the bystander’s role and responsibility. The Kansas Safe Schools Resource Center’s website reports about bystanders:
“While far too many students report that they are bullies, victims, or both, the vast majority of young people are neither bullies nor victims. Instead, most students fall into the category of bystander. This group includes everyone -- other than the bully and victim -- who is present during a bullying incident. According to John A. Calhoun, former president and CEO of the National Crime Prevention Council (NCPC), 6 out of 10 American teenagers witness bullying in school one or more times each day. In addition to the terrible problems that bullying creates for those who are directly involved, student bystanders to bullying also experience feelings of fear, discomfort, guilt, and helplessness.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, bystanders may experience the following:

  • Be afraid to associate with the victim for fear of either lowering their own status or of retribution from the bully and becoming victims themselves
  • Fear reporting bullying incidents because they do not want to be called a “snitch,” a “tattler,” or “informer”
  • Experience feelings of guilt and helplessness for not standing up to the bully on behalf of their classmate
  • Be drawn into bullying behavior by group pressure
  • Feel unsafe, unable to take action, or a loss of control

It is clear that bystanders display distinct patterns of behavior during a bullying incident; these responses represent students’ attitudes toward the problem of bullying (e.g., positive, neutral-indifferent, negative) as well as the actions they are likely to take during an actual incident.”

Are the actions of adult bystanders any different from the behaviors of student bystanders? No. But, there is a difference in responsibility. Adults are charged with the protection of the children entrusted to them. Shakeshaft goes further to say, “A common explanation for not reporting questionable behavior is, ‘If I reported and I was wrong, I would have ruined the life of another teacher.’ I have never heard a colleague say, ‘If I didn’t report and this person had abused, I’d have ruined the life of a student’ (p.9).” When we allow that thinking to take hold in our schools we are contributing to an unsafe environment for everyone, including, and especially, the children.

The leader’s role is to break the cycle. We need to create an environment of trust where others feel safe in reporting issues and where they believe we will act responsibly and discreetly. We need to truly see and truly listen when concerns are presented to us. It is ours to model the higher ground and create a safe environment in which children can flourish. The moment may come when we must choose between a sufficient regulatory response and our conscience. That is the moment in which we face the mirror. As educational leaders we cannot be bystanders for any reason. There is no excuse to stand by and every reason to stand up.

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out--
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out-- 
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out-- 
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me--and there was no one left to speak for me.
- Martin Niemöller

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.