Bullying and other forms of violence—from fighting to weapon use—can happen in any school in any community. In most cases, there are bystanders who see violence happening and hear about it before it occurs.
Often, however, bystanders do not know what actions they can take to prevent violence or keep it from escalating. Voices Against Violence, a ground-breaking video created by EDC’s Health and Human Development Programs (HHD), addresses the critical role bystanders—both adults and youth—can play in preventing school violence. Through a series of short, dramatic vignettes, the 26-minute video explores dilemmas bystanders face and calls on viewers to consider ways their school community can encourage and support positive bystander intervention.
Each vignette is presented through the experiences of “the bystander,” a boy or girl of middle-school age who confronts a violent or potentially violent situation and then must decide how to respond. The decision is never clear-cut, as the bystander struggles with such complex issues as loyalty, friendship, fear of reprisal, uncertainty about the seriousness of the situation, and lack of clarity about what to do and whom to approach for help. The moral and emotional evolution of the bystander is charted on the screen as the student grapples with the decision to intervene.
The stories include adults who are also bystanders and whose presence and actions have the potential to influence students’ decisions and behavior. Like student bystanders, adults—be they teachers, other school staff, or parents— are often unsure about whether and how to get involved in conflicts between students and what kinds of bystander behavior to encourage. In addition, many teachers are uncertain of how to respond when a student seeks their help, especially when a situation could—but may not—result in violence.
“The video addresses these real-life complexities head-on, by allowing our bystanders to discuss them directly and confessionally to the camera,” said the project’s principal investigator, Dr. Ann Stueve, EDC distinguished scholar and associate director of the Columbia University Center for Youth Violence Prevention. This technique—the mixture of fiction and documentary story-telling techniques—is an attempt to bring the viewer inside the bystander’s decision-making process as risks and responsibilities are considered. “These are young people who are trying to make the right decision, but aren’t always sure what that is,” she said.
Each story is sparked by an event that sets the story in motion and ends with a bystander poised to take action, leaving the audience with the task of discussing how the story could end in their community, how they would want it to end, and what needs to be in place in order for it to end nonviolently.
According to Dr. Renée Wilson-Simmons, associate director of HHD’s Center for Research on High-Risk Behavior and the project’s director, it is important to emphasize that there are a variety of possible responses in each situation. “That’s one of the reasons we think this is an excellent tool for use in a range of ways,” she said. “Because all members of the school community must take some responsibility for creating and maintaining a peaceful school environment, we believe these stories can be used to help schools figure out how that can be achieved.”
Most schools have violence prevention programs, but the role of the bystander often goes unaddressed, she said. “This tool can be used in classrooms to supplement an existing intervention, for beginning discussions with school staff and administrators about ways to address the barriers confronting bystanders to school violence, in school board presentations, and as a trigger for discussion at parent-teacher meetings.”
The video was developed as part of joint research project conducted by the Columbia University Youth Violence Prevention Center and Education Development Center and funded by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Directed by award-winning New York filmmaker Jesse Moss of Mile End Films, the video is introduced by Erika Harold, Miss America 2003, who herself was a victim of bullying and whose platform focused on youth violence.
It recently premiered in East Orange , N.J., where most of the vignettes were filmed, using both students and professional actors.
The complete Voices Against Violence package consists of a users guide and two formats of the stories—VHS and DVD. The package will be disseminated as a component of EDC’s Teenage Health Teaching Modules, a comprehensive school health curriculum for grades 6-12.
The guide provides instructions for using the stories with different audiences in diverse settings and includes questions to promote discussion and problem-solving.
Originally published on June 30, 2004