The Collegian
Thursday, December 08, 2022

Bystander effect threatens campus safety

This psychological phenomenon has real implications

It’s an easy decision to call the police when someone is bleeding out in front of you, or after you witness a car crash. But what about when the couple next door is screaming at each other, or when you see someone completely wasted being dragged up a flight of stairs? At what point do you step in?

I was standing in the hallway outside my friend’s room, listening to a couple next door arguing. My friend had called me and a few others over to assess the situation. The couple was so loud that you could clearly hear the fight through the walls. When the woman yelled, “Ow, that hurt!” We knew it was time to call the campus police. But surely we weren’t the only ones who had heard the dispute.

Psychology students learn about the bystander effect: a situation during which the presence of others interferes with an individual’s willingness to assist in an emergency. This real phenomenon threatens campus safety. I realized the importance of both stepping in and stepping up after my encounter with the fighting couple. It is critical we as students take action in difficult situations. 

In 2012, a University of Richmond committee, comprised of representatives from all areas of campus life, created the “Spiders Step Up!” program. The committee was composed of individuals from the University Police Department, Weinstein Center for Recreation and Wellness, Westhampton and Richmond colleges, the Chaplaincy, Academic Skills Center, Panhellenic Council, Athletics department and Counseling and Psychological Services. Their goal was to create a program to teach strategies that help students, teachers and staff intervene in situations that could be harmful to them or the community.

“Just as you teach people about the policies and what will happen and how to be safe, on the bystander front, the focus is on teaching people how to be aware of your surroundings and be aware of how you can intervene, and being understanding of the fact that that’s not always easy to do,” said Steve Bisese, vice president for student development. “It can be uncomfortable. So what are some of the skills that you need to do or what are some of the resources that you can reach out to if you’re not comfortable?”

A bystander training presentation is now shown to all incoming students at orientation. Then, in the Alcohol Edu course, which is mandatory for all freshmen, students are given scenarios and have to discuss how they would react when thrown into a difficult situation. But even with preparation and training, being exposed to the real thing can be complicated and controversial. Precautionary programs can only achieve so much.

“I think it’s valuable because you don’t usually think about what you would do,” Damian Hondares, a Richmond College RA, said regarding the training. “But when you’re actually thrust into it, it ceases to just be people acting like somebody in that situation. It’s a real situation. The stakes are raised.”

Unfortunately, almost nothing can fully prepare for the gut-wrenching situation itself. But if we lead by example, and increase discussion and awareness, it may help.

If you don’t proactively respond to a situation that demands action, then there’s a chance no one will. In order for the bystander program to be successful, every student needs to be a part of the bigger picture. Until everyone becomes an advocate for the welfare of our community, it will be hard to overcome the bystander effect. Security and safety are not guarantees, and students need to understand that they are ultimately responsible for promoting a safe environment for themselves and others.

“It really is a campus-wide effort. We all are involved, even if you don’t think about it, in looking out for one another,” Bisese said. “So the importance of not just looking away can be more damaging than you might think.”

Contact reporter Jessica Dankenbring at

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