Student Programs: Bystander Intervention

Best Practices for Campus Health and Safety

What If The Plane Blew Up? A Program About Empowering Bystander Intervention

A one-hour interactive program aimed primarily at all-male audiences, but can be offered to all-female or mixed gender audiences.

A Program from Brett Sokolow on Empowering Bystander Intervention

Program Length: One hour

Program Style: Interactive

Intended Audiences:

  • Risk Management for Fraternities
  • Risk Management for Sororities
  • Male Athlete Training
  • Student Athlete Training
  • Hazing Risk Management
  • Sexual Assault Risk Management
  • Problem Drinking Risk Management
  • Leadership Training

In 2001, shortly after the terrorist attacks, I was scheduled to visit a college client. It happened to be the first day the airports reopened, and it was my job to be on a plane, so I went to Newark airport to catch my flight. As I waited in the departure lounge, a man wandered in. Actually, he staggered. His lit cigarette caught my attention first. Then I noticed that he was literally drenched with sweat. I thought someone would tell him to put out the cigarette.

I watched as he approached the service desk and received a boarding pass. For my flight.

I watched as the gate agent took no notice of his odd appearance. I did.

I watched as he got in line to board the plane as boarding was called. Ahead of me.

Sweating profusely. Smelling of alcohol. Puffing a lit cigarette in the departure lounge of an international airport.

And, I just watched.

Three seats down from me, another passenger waiting to board my flight apparently saw the same thing, and as the disheveled passenger was about to board, rose from his seat and confronted the man. He called to the gate agent to summon security. As soon as he rose and approached the man, so did four other men in the gate area. I was one of them. We surrounded him until security could arrive. They detained him, and he did not board our plane.

Later, I read about him in the newspaper. He was found to have strapped about his chest a vest full of C4 explosives. They proved to be fake, and he claimed he was just testing to see if the airports were any safer after the attacks.

Thanks to the man three seats down from me, they were. What if this passenger had boarded? What if the explosives were real? What if he had blown up the plane? My plane. That day, I stopped being a bystander.

For most of my life prior to that point, I stuck up for myself pretty well, when it was my ox being gored. I let other people fend for their own oxen. Most of us do. I tried to steer away from conflict, and to avoid being pulled unnecessarily into situations that were other people’s problems. The man three seats down from me was truly courageous. I was only courageous enough to stand and confront the man once someone else had done so. Once there was strength in numbers. Yet, I saw something that was wrong. It was about to happen. And, I decided not to act. Never again. Now, I am the first person to trust my instincts, pay attention to the gift of fear, and intervene. I don’t stand idly by, because there really are no innocent bystanders.

As members of a community, we all have a duty to act. Not just to save ourselves, but to protect the rights, well-being and safety of others. We have all been in positions where we knew something was wrong. Some of us watched. Some turned away. Very few of us did anything. For most of us, intervening is not a natural instinct. But, it can be taught, and it can be learned. “What if the Plane Blew Up?” is about empowering bystanders with the right, the will, and the skills to intervene. Through stories, audience participation and motivational exercises, audience members will be inspired not to be one of the four guys who waited in the departure lounge, but the one man or woman who did something because they had to.

Audience members will learn that when they see something amiss, often others do as well. If you act first, as a leader, you will find that the other four who are watching will soon have your back. But, if you do not lead, no one may follow.

This one-hour program is aimed primarily at all-male audiences, but it can be offered to all-female audiences, or audiences of mixed genders. There are many ways in which bystander intervention will make a difference on a college campus, and “What if the Plane Blew Up?” can be focused on specific issues, depending on your needs. High-risk Drinking. Hazing. Sexual Assault. Prejudice. Or, it can be directed at multiple topics in which intervention can make all the difference between a crime and safety. Between life and death. Between right and wrong.

We all know that encouraging bystander intervention is a key to safer campus communities, but it is difficult to figure out just how to inspire intervention by students. This program has been designed specifically to help you empower your students to act to make a difference.

Sexual Assault as an Example

Take the example of sexual assault.  We know from the research that most men are not rapists.  But, we also know that most rapists are sociopathic repeat offenders.  Rape is rarely the result of misunderstanding or miscommunication.  We endeavor to educate potential perpetrators with prevention programs, and to encourage risk reduction for potential victims, but is there really any educational program that is going to convince a sexual predatory to stop his (or her) behavior?  Will empathy induction do it?  Doubtful.  Will a “here is the law and here are the consequences” approach stop serial rape?  Why should it?  There is really only one way to stop a predator.  Catch him and put him away.  So, should colleges just give up?  No.  Get a group of students together and ask them if they can identify other students who are predatory (or who haze, or who stalk, or who hate, or who are abusing alcohol to the point of injury to self or others).   Every student will tell you they know of someone.  If they do, our challenge is to motivate them to ask what they are going to do about it.  Intervene.  Maybe they won’t go to the Dean, or to the police, but maybe they will confront the individual.  Say something.  Let them know they are on the radar screen.  “What if the Plane Blew Up?” is not about making students into tattletales.  No one wants to be seen as a rat.  Millennials have far too much loyalty for that.  But, they also don’t like to put up with the misdeeds of others.  All they need is a little push in the right direction.  They need to understand enabling behavior and learn techniques for low-risk, high-impact intervention.  That’s what this program is all about.

What if The Plane Blew Up — Bullying Version

Just as bystanders can be empowered to engage to prevent situations of sexual assault, suicide, alcohol abuse, and other risks, they can become effective at intervening in bullying situations, both online and in person. Bullying is developmental — it’s common to be bullied and to bully in youth, but when those behaviors are severe or persist into adulthood, action must be taken. How to engage bullies, ally with the bullied, and constructively address and defuse bullying situations will be addressed in this presentation. Students will be motivated to act, and given tools to do so safely, constructively and effectively.

Student Testimonial

Sir,

You gave a speech today at my college, and you really hit home to me. I was literally shaking in my seat, my palms were sweaty, and I almost got up to share. I wanted to share with you, but I had an experience that I am not comfortable sharing—let alone in front of a thousand people who think they know me. See… I have never told anyone about my experience. This experience truly affected who I am today, and I wish I could thank the person who wasn’t a bystander for me. I am not over this experience no matter what I tell myself, but the young man made me strong enough to know when to act for the better. I am afraid of confrontation, and I can’t help wonder if it is because of this event, but despite this, I manage to push through. I don’t like confrontation, but I do because I remember the young man. Usually it is small stuff like sticking up for someone who gets talked about behind their back or picking up something someone dropped and running after them to give it back to them, even if it is only a lost mitten. Like the young man, your stories inspired me and I want to thank you. You are a phenomenal speaker, and I do believe you are changing lives. I think you changed some here tonight.

Very Respectfully,

A Coast Guard Cadet

In addition to our student programs, The NCHERM Group offers a variety of risk management workshops which can accompany any student program.