Bystanders: The Potential to Turn the Tides

Recent evidence suggests that a bystander approach may indeed be effective.  As described in an analysis by The New York Times of "rampage killings" over the last 50 years, youth offenders were more likely to have told others of their intentions than were older murderers, thus providing opportunities for intervention. Indeed, in many of the recent school shootings, it was later learned that students as well as school staff and parents were privy to information that could have been used to intervene. Such situations are, by now, familiar: the parent who noticed changes in his son but thought it was “just a phase”; the teacher who overheard threats being made by one student toward another and did not intervene, thinking that what she heard were idle threats and thus required no action; the classmate who was told that “something big is going to happen today” but kept silent, fearing retaliation if he attempted to report what he knew to school personnel.  

"About 66% of all violent crimes between 1993 and 1999 occurred in the presence of some in addition to the victim and offender(s). For all types of crime, when third parties were present, victims stated that the third parties were more likely to help the situation (36%) than to make it worse (11%), but most of the time they did neither (44%)."

- Mike Planty, Bureau of Justice Statistics

Although our attention is called to cases where bystanders did not take preventive action, there are indeed notable instances in which they have averted violence. For example, in February 1998, a 13-year-old boy walked into Union Middle School in Salt Lake City with a gun tucked in his belt. Fellow students noticed the pistol and informed school authorities. Similarly, in May 1998, a Missouri student alerted school officials that a classmate was in possession of a handgun. Confronted by police, the student relinquished a .22-caliber revolver and ammunition, which he indicated that he had obtained from his home. While such incidents are severe (and thankfully rare), there are countless examples in which bystanders have played a role in deterring or deflecting less serious forms of youth violence.  


Planty, M.  (2002, July).  Third-Party Involvement in Violent Crime, 1993-99. Bureau of Justice Statistics: Special Report, NCJ 189100. Available on-line at: Retrieved January, 2004.