Have you ever been in a bystander situation — that is, the witness of harassment but not its target? What happened? Did you want to help? Did you know how? Intervening as a bystander isn't easy, but it's important, and that's why bystander intervention training exists. In the past year, we've seen hate crimes against Asian Americans increase 145 percent and anti-Semitic incidents reach an all-time high. Learning how to safely intervene in these situations is one way you can make a difference in your community. We spoke with three experts to learn more about bystander intervention training, what it looks like, and where you can sign up to take a class.
What Is Bystander Intervention Training?
"Bystander intervention training is designed to equip people with the skills they need to intervene in moments where they see red flag behavior, when they see something they know isn't right happening to someone else, and they want to or feel the need to step in and do something," Ashley Virtue, director of external relations at the National Conflict Resolution Center (NCRC), told POPSUGAR.
As Gabriela Mejia, a trainings and communications associate at Hollaback, explained, "the goal of bystander intervention training is to give folks the tools to intervene when they witness harassment, in a way that will help the person being harassed and keep everyone safe." Protecting the target of harassment is especially important in these cases. Virtue noted that the NCRC focuses on bystander responses that are effective and address the behavior in the long term, while protecting the target of the behavior from feeling shame or embarrassment.
But there's another goal beyond supporting the person who's being harassed, and that's to create accountability and send a message to the harasser that their behavior will not be accepted by the people around them. "There are times when I intervene as a bystander to support the person who's being targeted, and there are other times when I intervene because I don't want to go to a school or be part of a workplace where a racist or sexist joke is tolerated," Meg Stone, executive director of Impact Boston, told POPSUGAR.
Who Should Take Bystander Intervention Training?
"In a one-word answer: everyone," Virtue said. "But the nuance is that there are different conversations to be had in different situations, so proper training for the right people is important." For example, if Virtue is giving bystander intervention training in a workplace, the managers and supervisors — who hold more power in that setting — receive a different version of the program than the employees. "Everyone can be a bystander, but people need to be given specific direction based on their role in a situation," Virtue explained.
Stone agreed that these power imbalances are a key component of bystander training, and that goes beyond the workplace. People may find it easier to intervene with two strangers than with two friends, for example, and bystander training explores strategies and actions one can take in these different scenarios. Stone explained that these trainings are perfect for people who have the desire to intervene but need the skills to match.
"The best fit for bystander intervention training is a person who had an experience in their life where they wish they would have done something, but didn't feel safe or comfortable speaking up, and wants to learn those skills," Stone said. "A reality of bystander training is that you're assuming risk for the greater good, and a big part of bystander intervention training is to help people find the right level of personal risk."
What Does Bystander Intervention Training Involve?
The style and duration of training depends on the organization providing it, but there are certain constants you can expect across training programs, including learning to recognize different types of harassment. Hollaback currently offers one-hour interactive virtual training sessions that discuss harassment, the bystander methodology, and example scenarios. At Impact Boston, instructors will simulate harassment scenarios and coach trainees on how to respond, which sometimes includes self-defense strategies. NCRC training begins with exploring the values that motivate people to act.
The NCRC also spends time looking at microaggressions. Harassment is a spectrum, and while many of us are trained to react to overt discrimination or hate, microaggressions can be just as harmful and escalate over time. "If we can address the behavior before it gets to that overt point, that's when everyone benefits," Virtue said.
The are also some common tenets you'll find in most bystander intervention training programs. Hollaback teaches the 5D's, where each D stands for a different tool that bystanders can use to intervene when harassment occurs (other organizations use a similar variation).
"These are five tools to de-escalate situations of harassment," Mejia told POPSUGAR. They are Distract, Delegate, Document, Delay, and Direct. Distract can include stepping in to ask for directions or dropping the bag you're holding. Delegate means finding someone in a position of authority and asking them to help. Documenting via video, which social media has made much more common, is also a way to help, as long as you ask the person being harassed what they'd like to do with the footage. Delay is a tactic you can use after the harassment has occurred, to check on the person and see what they need. And the last D, Direct, means directly stepping in.
As Stone explained, when you have all of these resources available to you, you can match your intervention strategy to your personality. For example, a shy person may not feel comfortable stepping directly into a situation, but they can still document what's happening.
How Effective Is Bystander Intervention Training?
A survey of nearly 8,000 college students who had received bystander intervention training (from Green Dot, another training organization) showed that trained students engaged in significantly more bystander behaviors than non-trained students. According to exit polls, 97 percent of people who participated in Hollaback's training said they felt they could do at least one thing to respond to harassment after attending. NCRC participants are asked before and after the training if they'd be willing to step in to a harassment scenario, and the percent of people willing to do so jumps up significantly after class. And, in 2019, bystander intervention training was shown to decrease both sexual and dating violence acceptance in Kentucky high schools over time.
The statistics speak for themselves — when someone is trained in effective and informed bystander intervention, they're more likely to step in. And that matters not only for protecting the target of harassment, but for sending a message to the harasser that their behavior won't be tolerated.
How Can I Sign Up For Bystander Intervention Training?
Bystander intervention training is offered by many universities, crisis centers, and local organizations. Both Hollaback and the NCRC offer virtual training, and you can also sign up by researching opportunities in your area.
For those who want to teach bystander intervention training, different organizations offer different teaching methodologies and certifications, so it's recommended that you contact the organization you're interested in to learn more.