THE BLOG
04/02/2013 03:24 pm ET | Updated Jun 02, 2013

The Upstanders

Three nights ago, I watched the home-made video of the aftermath of the horrific Steubenville, Ohio rape of a 16-year-old girl. I can't describe it. Nothing I can say here can match the lack of humanity and decency I heard in the words coming out of that piece of rough film. The starring character, the one that found the whole episode amusing, encounters one faint voice of protest, a voice that wasn't loud enough. The loudest voice ruled. I kept turning it off. But then I decided to go the distance and watch the whole 12 minutes and 29 seconds. As a violence prevention supporter for 20 years, and a social worker for almost 10 years before that, I told myself I should have been better prepared. I wasn't. I had trouble sleeping.

When I woke up the next morning, I suddenly remembered watching a "scenario" that had an eerie similarity to the prelude of what led up to the events in Steubenville.

It was about ten years ago, in a middle school gymnasium in Sioux City, Iowa. I watched a scene where an intoxicated teenage girl, who was barely able to walk, was being led out of a party by a teenage boy. The scene was set up to illustrate the tension of that moment. Suddenly a girl, and another boy she knew, sensing the danger, approached and intervened to take her to safety. It wasn't real, it was a scenario from a program called Mentors in Violence Prevention and acted out by high school future "mentors" in an all-day training.

The Mentors in Violence Prevention (MVP) Model was co- founded by internationally-known speaker, author, and activist Jackson Katz 20 years ago at Northeastern University's Center for the Study of Sport in Society 20 years ago. It's an innovative gender violence, bullying, and school violence prevention program that uses the "bystander" model to give students choices in how to approach potentially dangerous situations by creating real life scenarios like the one above.

MVP asks both young girls and young boys to be what is called "an active bystander." Another word being used today is "upstander," a term that became better known when the movie Bully premiered, and one used frequently now as part of the movement that grew out of the 2012 documentary. Now, more than ever, we need to create more "upstanders" and not only among our youth, but in partnership with parents, school staff, and finally, the whole community. Can we prevent every incident of violence, bullying, or sexual assault? I think not. But changing the power of the old message that "boys will be boys' and "kids will be kids" and implementing bystander or "upstander" programs in schools nationwide is a step in the right direction.

Both terms make sense when you are asking kids to go outside their comfort zone and have the courage to stand up for their peers to prevent the violence we hear about too often in this country. The term "bystander" isn't that new but we are gathering more data on how it works. Dr. Alan Heisterkamp, a violence prevention consultant and trainer at the University of Northern Iowa, says, "Today, we know more about the impact that active bystanders, sometimes referred to as "upstanders," have on reducing the frequency of harmful or abusive behaviors among youth and adults alike."

He's right. Newsweek wrote in 2009 about studies he did at a pilot high school in Iowa over 10 years ago,

"One study found that after the Sioux City School District in Iowa implemented the MVP program, the number of freshman boys who said they could help prevent violence against women and girls increased by 50 percent. The number of ninth-grade boys who indicated that their peers would listen to them about respecting women and girls increased by 30 percent."

New data can be found here.

As a consultant to Waitt Institute for Violence Prevention, Dr. Heisterkamp was one of the first trainers to work with MVP in high schools in combination with an outstanding curriculum we've used for many years called "Coaching Boys into Men' (CBIM). This Futures Without Violence program, piloted in 2005, uses the power of adult mentors, particularly athletic coaches with young male athletes, in changing cultures to prevent gender violence and sexual assault. A three-year evidence-based CDC study in 16 Sacramento, California high schools showed that student athletes who participated in CBIM were more likely to call out abusive behavior among their peers than those outside the program. Dr. Heisterkamp found that using both programs together was vital in challenging old and dangerous social norms that allowed incidents like Steubenville to happen. CBIM is now used in dozens of locations across the country and plans on expanding their map, as does Mentors in Violence Prevention, and they're doing it together in high schools across the country. See more here.

In the past ten years, we've had many young people who've worked with both Mentors in Violence Prevention and Coaching Boys into Men approach us with stories of "standing up," not standing by. The Bully Project has seen hundreds, if not thousands, of kids talking about what the power of a voice, a gesture, or a supportive intervention can do. Listening to those kids, and hearing those stories, I have hope.