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Marcus tells his friends he wants to “outdo Columbine” and begins to collect magazine articles about terrorism. He starts to dress in black and talks about building a bomb.
On her way to school Anna sees two girls taunting one another, surrounded by a dozen other students. She notices that one of the girls begins to push the other girl and then pull her hair.
As school officials around the country strive to become more savvy about handling violence, they are zeroing in on the critical role of “bystanders”: the confidantes of violent youth or those who are present when violence occurs. In most cases of school violence, peers knew beforehand about a planned attack, notes Ron Slaby, a senior scientist in EDC’s Health and Human Development Programs. In many cases of averted school violence, he adds, bystanders saw a red flag and took action that effectively prevented a tragedy.
“Traditionally,” says Slaby, “school interventions were focused exclusively on the aggressor. We used to wag our fingers at them, saying ‘don’t do that.’” Slaby developed the acclaimed Aggressors, Victims, and Bystanders (AVB) curriculum, which aims to change the roles students play in potentially violent situations. The majority of students are not aggressors, according to Slaby. Most students-in fact, most people-are bystanders to violence. “We are a nation of bystanders,” he says. Typically, bystanders passively accept violence, or they overtly encourage it. Both responses, suggests Slaby, are habitual patterns of thought and behavior established long ago.
The goal of AVB is to change those patterns and to teach young people to become “nonviolent problem solvers” instead. In that role, they can change the course of volatile situations at school. Rather than circle a fight cheering, “Fight, fight, fight,” nonviolent problem solvers might say, “C’mon, drop it, what are you making such a big deal of this for?”
About the Curriculum
AVB, which grows out of multidisciplinary research into violent behavior, is geared toward middle school students. The curriculum has been designated as a “promising program” by the U.S. Department of Education and was selected by the Illinois Commission for the Prevention of Violence as one of a handful of recommended curricula. It also received an A rating from Drug Strategies, a nonprofit research institute that promotes effective approaches. It is used in 44 states and has been formally adopted by many county and state groups and agencies. In West Palm Beach, Florida, where the county has adopted AVB for its middle school students, police officers have been trained to teach the curriculum to 12,000 sixth graders each year. In the fall, the program will be expanded to reach twice that number of students.
The backbone of the program is the four-step Think-First Model of Conflict Resolution: first, keep cool; second, size up the situation; third, think it through; and fourth, do the right thing. Students have opportunities to practice each step of the model in large and small groups. For example, students are asked to put themselves in the role of someone who sees a friend being ridiculed or threatened. Class discussion focuses on a number of questions: What are some impulsive, hot-headed thoughts the bystander might be having? What could he or she do to stay cool-headed in this situation? What can he or she do to help diffuse the situation while still maintaining respect?
According to Slaby, teaching violence prevention through the experience of a bystander works well because no one is defensive about being a bystander (as they are about being the aggressor or victim). Bystanders don’t have the emotional investment in the conflict, so they can see a wider range of options and make better decisions than the participants. “We’re all equal as bystanders. We can all learn well by distancing ourselves from a situation and using the lessons as a mirror of our own behavior,” he says. “This approach becomes a stepping stone to social perspective-taking and to empathy, which is the heart of violence prevention.”
A Research-Based Program
While the curriculum focuses on nonviolent youth, many of its strategies grew out of research with violent offenders. The understanding of the pivotal role of the bystander emerged from a multidisciplinary examination of violence, says Slaby. Drawing on the perspectives of public health, developmental psychology, education, and criminal justice, Slaby and his colleagues have come to see violent behavior as the product of the habits of thought and coping strategies children have learned in their early years. As such, they also came to see that violent behavior-and, in turn, reactions to violence-can be unlearned.
“Patterns of violence can be changed, through early, systematic, and coordinated application of violence prevention interventions that are guided by research,” Slaby writes. While early intervention is ideal, he says, it is never too late to intervene.
Research by Slaby and his colleagues revealed major differences between violent juvenile offenders and their less violent classmates. “We found enormous differences,” says Slaby, “in how they think, what they think, and their style of thinking. Violent youth lack the skills to solve social problems.” They don’t think thoroughly or consequentially, Slaby explains. They don’t think of a wide range of options or prioritize them, and they characterize problems and set goals based on hostile, adversarial positions.
With that knowledge, Slaby and his colleagues (notably Nancy G. Guerra of the University of California at Riverside) set out to affect these characteristics of aggressors. They created a 12-session “cognitive mediation” program that focused on behavior modification and problem-solving styles (e.g., passive, aggressive, responsible) and presented it to aggressive, incarcerated boys and girls. Following the classes, the young people showed increased skills in solving social problems, decreased endorsement of beliefs supporting aggression, and decreases in aggression, impulsiveness, and rigidity, as rated by staff. The effects continued to be in place two years after the program.
On the basis of those results, Slaby and his colleagues realized that if they could identify and address the habits of thinking for aggressors, they should also be able to do it for victims and bystanders.
The developers of AVB, Slaby, Renée Wilson, and Kimberly Dash, all of EDC, had an abiding commitment to research as the basis for program development. They developed lessons following basic research and an extensive review of 33 related curricula. They revised the program after soliciting extensive feedback about the clarity, relevance, age-appropriateness, engagement, and practical usefulness of the lessons. For example, they found that middle-schoolers didn’t understand the distinction between conflict “escalation” and “de-escalation,” confusing the terms with electronic escalators. The developers replaced those terms with the concepts of “heating up” or “cooling down” the conflict, phrases that were understood by all students. “All kids want to be ‘cool-headed’ rather than ‘hot-headed,’” observes Slaby.
Finally, the developers conducted outcome research on the use of the curriculum with more than 300 high-risk, inner-city early adolescents. The curriculum led to changes in students’ beliefs about violence; their intent to resolve conflict without aggression, to seek more information, and to avoid conflict; and their self-rated behavior, indicating withdrawal of bystander acceptance and encouragement of aggression.
Slaby’s work in this realm will continue over the next several years with a multilevel bystander intervention that targets students, adults, and community members. In an effort to understand the many influences on violent behavior, he is also studying the pervasive effects of media and whether “media literacy” programs can play a preventive role.
Aggressors, Victims, and Bystanders is part of EDC’s Teenage Health Teaching Modules, a health curriculum for grades 6-12, which is in use in more than 6,000 middle and high schools across the country.
Originally published on September 1, 2001