No Longer Standing By: Teaching the Bystander Effect

There is this unit that I teach called “True Crime,” and in this unit, the class discusses our fascination with “true and fictional crime stories.” To do so, we read an essay penned by Walter Mosley: “True Crime: The Roots of an American Obsession.”  After reading a certain cluster of paragraphs, I draw my students’ attention to supplemental sources that refine his claims. One of them being:

“True-crime stories, murder mysteries, up-to-the-minute online news reports, and (as always) rumor and innuendo grab our attention faster than any call for justice, human rights, or ceasefires.”

This idea that we rather watch from the sidelines than have the coach put us in the game. Naturally, students are confused at first, so I use this statement to draw their attention to a few examples that showcase this belief.

As a class, we read an article on Kitty Genovese, a woman who was stabbed multiple times outside of her apartment. We read how, according to the New York Times article, 37 witnessed the murder. We read how out of those 37 reported witnesses, not a single one offered assistance to Genovese, despite her pleas. Throughout the years, this number has been contested and it has been argued that many did not have a clear understanding of the crime, and therefore did not see the need to intervene. However, these specifics only matter to an extent. 37 or 2, that is still too many people that chose not to help.

There is a looming silence that typically occurs as I read the article to the class due to a feeling of mutual disgust that occupies the room. However, there has always been one voice in each class: “I wouldn’t want to get involved either! I am not risking my life for nobody!” Although it saddens me that this can be an immediate reaction, I welcome responses such as this. I explain to my students that there are ways to get involved that do not result in immediate danger. I explain to my students the dangers of a society filled with individuals that match this sentiment. I use statements such as the one mentioned above to introduce my class to the bystander effect.

I show videos of the Smoke-Filled Room, and watch my students ridicule the woman who remains in the room far beyond their expectations (“She’s buggin’!” “Nah, if that were me, I would have been left!“). I show them a few more examples to drill the notion in their head. Students make connections to a time that they saw a car accident, or a fight that they witnessed, I hear so many different tales that all end in the same way. There is a multitude of factors that lead to this ending: fear of going against the norm; fear of risking one’s self; believing that someone else will handle it; etc. However, all of them end with a cluster of people watching rather than acting.

Half a century after Kitty Genovese, a teenager was stabbed outside a bodega in the Bronx. Whereas those involved in the tragedy of Kitty Genovese chose to turn a blind eye, these witnesses actively watched the crime. During the time of Kitty Genovese, callers had to dial ‘0’  to reach an operator and then get connected. Today, some phones are programmed to complete the call to ‘911’ after simply dialing the number ‘9.’  Yet no one offered Junior a hand because their hands were too busy holding devices recording the events.

After reading about Kitty Genovese and discussing the bystander effect, I ask my students, “Should bystanders be responsible for intervening when witnessing a crime? Are we obligated to help those clearly in need?” The class debates this issue and we typically reach the consensus that at the very least, individuals should report the crime. When that one voice I mentioned earlier continues to object, a bunch of students retaliate with, “What if your mom was the one that needed help? What if you were the one that needed help?” 

When I teach this unit again in the Fall, I will include this story of Junior. When I teach this unit again in the Fall to my 9th graders, who are either already 15 or turning 15, I will include the story of 15 year-old Junior. Not because I want to scare them of the dangers in the world – they are already well aware of this – but because I want to remind them to question the status quo. As history suggests, just because an event or action was accepted (or allowed) by a community, it does not make it morally sound. In fact, it is often the case that it only required one person to challenge normalcy for it to be altered. Our society has gotten so caught up in capturing the narratives that we have forgotten that we are all active characters that have the potential to alter its course. We continue to view ourselves as insignificant, and we therefore forget that all it takes is one to ignite change. We should not be afraid to go against the norm when it involves watching the murder of a 15 year-old boy.

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