The Power of Bystanders in Bullying Prevention

By Trevor Romain, author of Bullying Is a Pain in the Brain

The Power of Bystanders in Bullying PreventionI was doing an assembly at an elementary school recently and asked the kids if they thought it was okay for anyone to kick or hurt a dog or cat. “No, of course not,” they all yelled.

“Would you do something about it if you saw it happening?” I asked.

“Yes, of course we would,” they shouted.

“Then why don’t kids stand up for other children who are being bullied?” I asked. “Many kids are not able to stand up for themselves. They may have a challenge or an issue that makes them vulnerable. They have feelings, and their feelings get hurt just like pets’ feelings and yours and mine. And they are unable to protect themselves.”

It’s rather amazing how that simple conversation makes kids think and often empowers them to act in support of their peers who are being bullied.

Kids are visibly shocked when I tell them the disturbing fact that a quarter of all kids polled in a survey said they have encouraged bullying while being a bystander.

Kids are surprised when I explain to them that by doing nothing when they see someone being bullied, they are actually encouraging the bullying. Stan Davis, in his book Empowering Bystanders in Bullying Prevention, says, “Kids don’t know what to do in all situations. If they see someone being cruel to someone else, it’s not always easy for them to know what to do.”

It is important to empower bystanders by giving them permission to intervene and letting them know that doing so can and will make a difference. The majority of bystanders believe that watching is okay and that as long as they are not involved, they have not been a part of the bullying. Interestingly enough, research shows that when bystanders actively discourage bullying, there is a 50 percent chance that the bullying will cease.

I have personally experienced the results of an empowered bystander, and I share that story with kids during my school visits. I tell them about my life at high school and how I had to run to the public bus stop before the Wrecking Crew got to me.

Yes, the Wrecking Crew. A couple of boys at my school who made my life miserable.

They often caught me between the gym and the school gate when school ended. They even got me when I took a loop around the pool and tried to outrun them to the bus stop from the other side.

They delighted in choking me with my tie, bumping into me when they walked past, knocking my lunch out of my hand, and even slapping me when they ran past.

One time, when I was leaning against the bus shelter, one of them kicked my feet out from under me, and I fell into the gutter and scraped my knee. I ended up tearing the cartilage, which had to be surgically repaired a few years later.

They made my school life a misery. Then one day, a small gesture altered the trajectory of my unhappiness.

I was an avid photographer and I especially enjoyed taking pictures of the school’s First Rugby Team in action. It was my creative outlet. It was something that took my mind away from the guys who made my afternoon bus trip a daily debacle.

My alma mater, King Edward the 7th High School (KES), had a fantastic rugby team that year. One of the star players was a chap by the name of Shane Carty. Shane was a big, strong guy and a brilliant rugby player. (He played for the South African Schools rugby team that year. They were the top fifteen schoolboy rugby players in the entire country.)

One Monday morning after a fantastic win against Durban Boys High, I went to school clutching a really nice photograph I had taken of Shane leaping up for the ball. I wanted to give him the picture, but I was afraid to approach him. Shane was one of the most revered and worshiped guys at school. People idolized him at KES. Even the teachers fell over themselves to say hi to him and shake his hand. I was a very small guy and four grades younger than him. I was so little that he may not even have seen me because I was about level with his kneecaps.

I waited all day for the right moment. Then at break, outside the tuck shop (like a snack bar), I saw him and gave him the picture. I was so nervous I just about shook right out of my shoes.

I saw some of the kids in my class with their jaws gaping in surprise. They were gob-smacked that I had the audacity to speak to someone of Shane’s stature in the school.

I handed him the picture and then beat a hasty retreat. In two strides, he caught up to me and asked, “You took this?”

I nodded.

“That’s great. Thanks, man,” he said, patting me on the back with a giant hand. “What’s your name?”

I told him my name and got away as quickly as possible.

After that, I saw him every now and then, and he always nodded hi to me when we passed in the school halls.

One afternoon after rugby practice, the Wrecking Crew accosted me once more. They grabbed my tie and were pulling me around like a dog on a leash, almost strangling me in the process. They were having a great time kicking and barking at me, pretending I was a dog while other kids at the bus stop laughed their heads off.

Those bystanders often embarrassed me. Especially on the bus.

As they were shaming me, Shane Carty and some of the First Team rugby players rounded the corner and saw the melee. The boys let me go and started horsing around with one another, pretending nothing had happened.

Shane continued walking toward us and greeted me as he passed. “Hi, Trevor,” he said.

The boys who had been slapping me around stopped in their tracks. They couldn’t believe that the Shane Carty was greeting me.

Without making a big fuss, he stopped right next to the guy who had grabbed my tie. He looked down at him and said, “Don’t ever let me see you doing that again. Okay?”

That’s all he said. Then he walked on.

Those guys never messed with me again. Ever.

In fact, nobody at school ever bullied me after that. I actually started enjoying school, for goodness sake.

A while back, I found Shane Carty’s email address on the Internet and wrote him a note to personally thank him for making such a huge difference in my life. (I can honestly say I didn’t want to be alive sometimes because those kids shamed me so much in front of the other kids.)

Shane’s simple gesture actually changed my school experience, and I will never forget his kindness. Yet, when he received my email more than 35 years later, he had absolutely no recollection of what he had done and what an impact it had on me.

He told me he put his head down and cried when he got my email.

Sometimes the smallest acts of kindness can actually make the biggest difference to the receiver of said kindness . . . without the giver even knowing it.

What Shane doesn’t know is that I have shared this story with more than 150,000 kids during the last four years on my current USO world speaking tour. In essence, Shane has inspired thousands and thousands of kids and taught them how, as a bystander, they have the positive power to change someone else’s life.

By simply speaking up, bystanders can actually make a difference for the targets of bullying.

Author and illustrator Trevor RomainTrevor Romain is an award-winning author, illustrator, and motivational speaker. His books have sold more than a million copies worldwide and have been published in 18 languages. For more than 20 years, Trevor has traveled the world, delivering support and stand-up comedy to thousands of children. He has been the keynote speaker at numerous education and mental health conferences and has appeared regularly on national and international media outlets. Trevor is the former president of the American Childhood Cancer Organization and is well known for his work with the Make-A-Wish Foundation, the United Nations, UNICEF, USO, and the Comfort Crew for Military Kids, which he co-founded. Trevor lives in Austin, Texas.

Free Spirit books by Trevor Romain:

Bullying Is a Pain in the Brain Cliques, Phonies, & Other Baloney Stress Can Really Get on Your Nerves


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One Response to The Power of Bystanders in Bullying Prevention

  1. Thank you for your work!! Students in all environments need empowering so they can feel support to help themselves and their peers put an end to the tragedy of bullying in all communities.

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