Voices in Education

Beyond the Bullies: Bystanders and Instigators Enable Aggression
Bruce Springsteen refers to high school as the “glory days” in one of his popular songs, and he regrets that the high school years pass by so quickly. Yet the sad truth is that high school is a far cry from glorious for children and youth experiencing bullying and harassment. School is a hostile and unfriendly environment for victims of bullying. Instead of passing by too quickly, their high school years may feel endless. Recently, incessant bullying by a group of students both inside and outside of school contributed to the suicide of fifteen-year-old Phoebe Prince in South Hadley, MA, and it has brought the issue into the forefront for educators, students, parents, and community members around the country.

A student writer in the book The Courage to Be Yourself described the effects of being a target when she said, “For the first time in my life, I didn’t want to go to school…I would go to school every day with my heart pounding. I hardly paid attention and I never really learned anything. It was hard to concentrate on my schoolwork. The other students were very disruptive” (Desretta 2006). Bullying and harassment increasingly takes place over the Internet on social networking sites such as MySpace and Facebook, as well as through instant messaging and cell phone text messages, extending the torment for targets.

The often ignored reality is that incidents involving bullying and harassment are witnessed by other students. These bystanders often believe that doing nothing will prevent them from being harassed, that it isn’t their business to intervene, or that they are powerless to stop the bullying because the school doesn’t impose clear consequences.

Bystanders can also enable the bully by encouraging the aggression or even acting as an instigator. Instigators enable aggressors (bullies) by spreading rumors, gossip, or making up things to get the target in trouble. The instigator may use taunts or rumors to try to make the aggressor mad enough to harass the target. Instigating can be done verbally, in e-mail or Internet chat rooms, or through graffiti in public places such as bathrooms. In the Phoebe Prince case, instigators appear to have played a large role in the overall problem at South Hadley High School.

Generally, bullies do not like being confronted. Bullies are about power and control, and confronting them or stepping in to stop them usurps their sense of power. However, when one person becomes an ally for the target and stands up to a bully, it can galvanize other apathetic bystanders to jump into action in support of the person confronting the bully.

Most bystanders do not like witnessing another person being bullied. It puts one into an uncomfortable psychological state known as cognitive dissonance to witness a bullying incident and do nothing about it. Cognitive dissonance occurs when our actions do not match our internal code of ethics and morality; it is triggered when we don’t act in accordance with our internal moral code. When somebody finally makes the first move to interrupt bullying, others are more likely to follow.

Some students are able to become an ally and intervene on behalf of a target on their own, but many lack the confidence to stand up to an individual bully or a dominant group that is harassing another student. The Phoebe Prince case points out the importance to schools of providing training and support for both school personnel and students to counter bullying and harassment both within and outside of the school. Schools have an ethical and legal responsibility to create safe learning environments.

Harassment in schools violates Title VI and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972. “Schools are responsible for illegal actions they know about or should have known about and are obligated to prevent harassment in the school by anyone” (Steineger 2001). Thirty-three states now require or recommend that districts implement anti-bullying programs (Galley 2002). After years languishing in a committee, last month legislators in Massachusetts passed different versions of anti–school bullying legislation, which the regional office of the Anti-Defamation League says could emerge as the nation's strongest. It would not criminalize bullying, but it could mandate an anti-bullying curriculum in schools, training of teachers and staff, and reporting of potentially criminal bullying to law enforcement


American Association of University Women (2001). Hostile Hallways: Bullying, Teasing and Sexual Harassment in School.

Brewster, C. and Railsback, J. (2002). Banish Bullying from the Schoolhouse. Portland, OR: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory.

Desretta, A. (2006). The Courage to Be Yourself. Minneapolis, MN: Free Spirit Press and Cambridge, MA: Educators for Social Responsibility.

Galley, M. (2002). Bullying policies slow to reach schools. Bethesda, MD: Education Week.

Steineger, M. (2001). Preventing and Countering School-Based Harassment: A Resource Guide for K–12 Educators. Portland: Northwest Regional Educational Laboratory Equity Center.

About the Author: Denise Wolk is director of publications and a senior program associate for Educators for Social Responsibility. ESR supports middle and high schools to create programs that counter bullying and harassment and improve school climate and culture for all students’ healthy development and learning.