Your Town Now: Stopping the Silence

For the purposes of this writing, let’s stipulate up front that we don’t really know exactly what happened in the Penn State football locker room in March of 2002. It is clear that a young boy was raped and that the perpetrator was allowed to go free, but further details haven’t come out yet. We have enough of a story to spark some thought about bystanders and The University of Iowa.

The question that people keep asking boils down to this, “Why didn’t some one stop the rape they knew, should have known, or suspected was occurring?” The answers to this question will vary, depending on which person’s behavior is being scrutinized. The university administrators surely had their reasons for not calling the police, while the other people lower down the hierarchy had theirs.

Penn State is not the only place where these questions are necessary. The University of Iowa athletic department has had two high-profile rape cases in the last ten years, as well as two incidents in which academic faculty members committed suicide after being accused of sexual harassment. We should take these incidents, whatever the details, as clear indications that there is more rape, assault and harassment than we care to admit to ourselves going on. These incidents show that there were people who could have stopped bad actors and minimize the devastating fallout, if they had intervened sooner. In other words, as Alan Berkowitz puts it in Response Ability: A Complete Guide to Bystander Education, the question is, “Why don’t we intervene?” (Emphasis added.)

According to Berkowitz, the research suggests that people move through four stages in the course of intervening:

UI Women's Resource and Action Center, 130 N Madison St., Iowa City
First, they have to notice the problem. For example, in the Penn State case, the graduate assistant supposedly saw the perpetrator raping a boy in the shower. Second, they have to see what they observe as a problem. No one supposes that the Penn State grad assistant didn’t see what he saw, or fail to recognize its evil. He clearly saw the episode as a problem and no matter what the details of his immediate response, his later behavior shows that he felt responsible for dealing with it, the third of Berkowitz’s analytic stages.

It’s in the final stage that things fall apart. The grad assistant lacked the necessary skills to act. He did not call the police and he may have failed to get the boy away from the rapist. We cannot know exactly why he failed to do these things. The research referenced in Berkowitz’s book gives some clues. It may be that the bystander was encumbered by the social influence of the people around him who were doing nothing, he may have feared embarrassing himself by coming forward, or embarrassing Penn State and its football program. He may have assumed that someone else would take care of it once he had reported it up the chain, he may have feared retaliation and he may have decided that no one wanted this to become public. While these do not excuse his silence, especially in such a horrific case, they do begin to explain it.

They also point to the lessons that Penn State and Iowa’s failures teach: It’s not enough to decry abuse, harassment, rape and silence. We have to do something about them. And in order to do something about them, we have to develop skills that will allow us to overcome our reluctance, fear and inertia.

For a long time, the Women’s Resource and Action Center (WRAC) at the UI has been mobilizing women and men to take on the responsibility of standing up against rape, the various -isms, harassment and other forms of violence. WRAC began using bystander intervention theory in a program called Iowa Women Initiating Social Change. For the last three years WRAC’s director, Linda Kroon, who is also Bystander Education Coordinator for the University, has been training people to intervene and to teach others how to intervene. WRAC formed the Men’s Anti-Violence Council in the fall of 2007, in part to further the goal of creating bystanders who can recognize problems and can act. MAC coordinator Jarrod Koon, together with members of the council, has delivered bystander training to many groups around campus, highlighting men’s responsibility for making our community safe and welcoming for all people. WRAC helped OnIowa, the university’s orientation program, develop and deliver a bystander curriculum presented by 180 student leaders to the incoming first-year class. There are organizations hard at work disseminating information and techniques for dealing with a multitude of situations, from thoughtless but harmful speech to physical confrontations. There is no excuse for ignorance and no excuse for inaction.

The first lesson of bystander intervention is that bystanders can make a difference. In many cases, one person is enough to abort an aggressive act, or to let a potential victim know that he or she is not alone. One person is frequently enough to make a harasser understand how his behavior is harming others. One person can frequently inspire or empower others to join together to defuse a situation. We have more power than we know and less to fear than we think.

The second lesson is that there are many ways to intervene. Some are immediate and direct, changing things as they occur. Some involve recruiting support for a victim, or bringing a perpetrator’s behavior to the attention of authorities who can stop it. In the rush and chaos of events, a bystander who wishes to intervene must have already imagined a way to step in. He or she must have a plan and the courage and the ability to carry it out. In the aftermath of an event, someone who wishes to intervene must know that there are resources available for victims and institutions for punishing bad behavior. He or she must have information, a plan for follow-up and the persistence and courage to carry it out.

The University of Iowa attempts to help its students, faculty and employees acquire information and skills to reduce violence of all kinds, especially sexual violence. In the end, though, it’s up to us as a community to recognize the value of the skills we are being offered. It’s our responsibility to make sure that we pay attention and educate ourselves so that we can intervene. The skills are relatively simple and, once fixed in the mind, enhance our ability to help. Without critical forethought, however, we risk paralysis and failure.

The people best situated to end violence, harassment and rape are the perpetrators, who could and should stop. As a community, we have a responsibility to let perpetrators know, firmly, compassionately and continuously that such behavior is intolerable. We should be clear that we can and will do whatever is necessary to stop victimization in all its forms. The skills are available to us all. Whatever Penn State reveals about the American university, or football, or American culture, it makes clear the horrors that result when people stay silent.

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Disclosure: Pat Dolan is a member of the Men’s Anti-Violence Council and a WRAC volunteer. I also work with WRAC on a service learning project on bystander intervention.