Developing contextual responses to the abuse and exploitation of young people


Could Bystanders be one solution in preventing violence?



This blog was written by Graham Goulden, former Scottish Police officer and member of the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit (VRU). Since retiring from policing, Graham has set up his business Cultivating Minds UK. Graham provides a range of training around both victims and perpetrators of all forms of sexual violence and bullying.

Consider the following scenario:

You are in a school corridor with your friends. You notice another friend of yours with his girlfriend. What grabs your attention is the way that he is talking to her. You can’t make out what he is saying but it is clear he is angry. Also, he is holding her tightly by the arm.

What’s now going through your mind when you see this? Something like this…….

Wow this has really grabbed my attention. What do I do? If I do say something right now, could you make it worse? Might my friend turn on me, might the girl turn on me as well? Ok this is none of my business isn’t it, but I feel really uncomfortable walking past this. If he does this in public what does he do when in private? If I do nothing I’m saying this is ok, but I know it’s not.

The above scenario is becoming more and more common amongst young people within their early relationships. Many agencies are reporting that victims and perpetrators of domestic abuse are getting younger. We also know from past research that many young women see this as ‘something that just happens’ within a relationship and shockingly, we also know that some young men see this as their right.

With the backdrop of a continuing rise in domestic abuse in Scotland the Scottish Violence Reduction Unit began in 2011 the task of replicating the Mentors in Violence Prevention Programme (MVP) in the Scottish high school setting. Developed in the United States by educator Dr Jackson Katz, the model used in high schools within Sioux City, Iowa has produced very encouraging outcomes suggesting that the model has the ability to change attitudes and promote a climate where bystanders can provide support to victims of abuse as well as safely challenging perpetrators of abuse.

MVP is a leadership programme that utilises a creative bystander approach to preventing violence. We tend to focus on the end result, the physical stuff. To really prevent violence, we need to start to challenge the bullying, the name calling, the sexist jokes and importantly the silence from the many people who witness the end result or who remain silent in the face of negative behaviours.

Let’s be clear being a bystander is tough. A lot of the thoughts detailed above are the reason why so many people are silent when faced with similar situations. Many are scared. Most don’t know what to do. Some will say it’s not my business to get involved. Therefore, we need to understand the reasons for non-intervention if we are to enable passive bystanders to become more active.

We often suggest that bystanders should not get involved. There are risks in intervening that’s clear, however within MVP a bystander is defined, as a friend, a classmate, a team mate, a relative or a colleague. It is someone that is known who is either being victimised or who is the perpetrator. Also, what do we mean when we use the term intervention? To many this word describes a situation where a bystander has to get directly involved so potentially putting themselves in harm’s way. MVP aims to look far wider than this and provide bystanders with a range of safe intervention strategies.

Let’s go back to the scenario at the start. What could you do? You could do nothing, and we have to accept that to some this is their only choice. When discussing silence within MVP we talk about what messages silence is sending out. It says to victims they are on their own and just have to accept the abuse. It tells others that their abusive behaviour is accepted either within the circle of friends, within the organisation or worryingly in society. So, silence doesn’t help, and I would go further and suggest silence is the infection that allows the abuse to continue.

Yes, you could directly get involved and put yourself in between the two. That will have consequences some of which I have described. Remember this is happening to a friend. You have a responsibility to do something surely? What could you do to make this intervention safer? Could to engage others, your friends? Could you speak with a teacher or a parent?

You could shout out from a distance. This is safer, it lets the perpetrator know they are being watched. You could further distract the perpetrator by referring to something else. This could stop the abuse and provide an opportunity later to speak directly to either the victim or the perpetrator. This simple support for a victim could make a huge difference. It may also let the perpetrator see what they are doing is socially unacceptable and even unlawful.

The range of interventions available to a bystander are made clear during all MVP scenarios. Another major plus for using a bystander model is that boys, girls, men and women are not targeted as victims or perpetrators. Most men will suggest that as they are not abusive then the prevention of these issues is not their responsibility. By suggesting that these issues are happening to people they care about you can engage them on prevention rather than simply indicting them. In simple language you are ‘switching on’ the bystander to see a reason for getting involved. You are ‘ringing the bell’ in their head and giving them options to intervene.

Most think that a bystander model seeks to give people a list of ‘what to do options’. Whilst this is a part of it, a lot of the model attempts to address the dynamics of the issue. So, in this case, questions like why do some boys assault their girlfriends? or why do girls who are being abused stay with their boyfriends? We also ask such questions as what is domestic abuse or dating violence, what is sexting? MVP aims to get young people to identify a behaviour as wrong or unhealthy.

Think about another scenario where a boyfriend continually sends his girlfriend numerous text messages asking where she is or who she is with or, where a boy sends an indecent image of a girlfriend to others. The MVP model starts to identify these behaviours as abusive, having impact. Importantly MVP provides a platform for friends to see that the majority of their peers hold similar healthy views. Behaviours such as bullying and sexual harassment are the pillars which if not tackled support the use of physical violence. They often say that violence starts with words. Empowering the healthy majority is key.

The real magic of the MVP model is found in the peer to peer approach taken to deliver these sessions. The model recruits and trains older High school pupils with the aim that they, after training, deliver sessions to younger peers. These young leaders provide a positive role model influence and as we all know young pupils look up to older pupils in any school. Seeding schools with pro-social role models, we know will have a positive and lasting impact.

The evidence from Scotland has been positive with attitudes to violence changing. Young people communicate that they have options to help others. Schools are seeing less violence, less expulsions and a general feeling of safety is becoming a regular part of feedback. Furthermore, the skills that mentors are developing are supporting them out-with the school setting. These skills are supporting mentors in their university application forms as well in job interviews in their post school lives.

Schools are places of learning, that is clear. It is also clear that unhealthy relationships are a barrier to successful learning. No significant learning will take place without a significant relationship. Therefor MVP, is a tool that helps support the building of healthy relationships. MVP is a programme supporting schools achieve more than just reducing violence. It helps young people be the success they want and deserve to be.

Posted: 22 Aug 2018

Author: Delphine Peace

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