There’s a television show that shows people getting harassed in public situations and the hidden cameras take note of whether bystanders try to intervene on behalf of the person who is being attacked. What do you think you would do if you saw a man pulling a woman out of a restaurant by her hair? Would you say or do something? What would you do if you saw a shop owner refuse service to a black man just because he is black? And what if you saw a gang of boys beating up on a smaller boy? Would you intervene in some way?
Do we have an obligation to intervene on behalf of someone who is being clearly injured, attacked, harassed, or abused? What if you saw a man beating his little girl with his fists while you were out shopping?
Years ago I was in my car with a friend who I consider very compassionate and kind. We were chatting and driving past an elementary school at lunch time. As we drove past the fence, I saw 4 boys beating up on a smaller boy who was already on the ground with his arms up to protect his face while the boys kicked his body and rained punches down on his head. Without even thinking I pulled over to the curb, jumped out of my car and ran to the fence yelling, “Boys! Boys! Stop it!! What are you doing?” They looked up guiltily. Two of them ran off. The other two stood defiantly. One of them said, “He’s a retard.” I can’t even tell you how appalled I was on so many levels. As if being mentally impaired was proper justification for beating someone up.
I looked around for a teacher but couldn’t find one. I’ve been a substitute teacher and I know there are only a few adults on the playground during lunch and recess and they have to watch sometimes 200 kids. They can’t be everywhere at once. I glanced down at the little boy on the ground and asked him if he was alright. He looked up at me sheepishly and said, “I think so. They do this to me all the time. I’m used to it.”
That was it for me. I imagined what it must be like for this poor child to go to school every day knowing that he might, or even probably, would get beat up by his peers. Did his mother know this was happening? Did the school and teachers know? I couldn’t walk away from this scene without making sure someone with some authority was aware of the situation. By this time my friend was out of the car and he too was lecturing the little boys on why you don’t beat up on someone. I asked the boys for their names and they actually gave them to me. Armed with that information we got back in the car, drove around to the front of the school, went into the office, and asked to speak to someone regarding a situation we had witnessed on the playground.
We told the principal what we had seen and he took it very seriously and assured us he would take care of the matter. We asked him what he intended to do. He told us he would bring the boys in, contact their parents, and suspend the boys if necessary. I asked him what he intended to do to prevent this from happening again. That’s when the excuses started rolling in. “Well, we just don’t have the man power to make sure every child is being watched on the playground. We can’t do anything after or before school while the kids are not on our property. And the child needs to learn to report when he is being harassed and we’ll take care of it.”
That didn’t sit well with me at all. I believe that when a child goes to school he or she should be assured of at least a decent measure of safety. No child should live in fear of going to school. How can you learn when you’re sitting in fear of the lunch bell ringing? I also believe teachers and school administrators should be very involved with educating young people about compassion, kindness, and why they shouldn’t bully or harass other children. If children are allowed to get away with bullying then how will the behavior ever stop? Children should also be taught to intervene, in some way, when they see a fellow student being hurt. Too often people adopt the “it’s not my problem” excuse and let violence happen.
And then what happens when we become adults?
Do you stand by idly when you see someone being attacked? Would you be willing to intervene on behalf of a stranger? Would you put yourself in harm’s way to protect a child? Would you go out on a limb to get the authorities involved if you saw something that shouldn’t be happening? How far would you go?
I can think of at least four occasions in my own life where I saw someone abusing someone in public and I’ve said or done something to try to help the victim, sometimes at great risk to my own life. I’m not saying you should take a bullet for a stranger, but do something to try to help. Call the police, file a report, follow the person to their car and get their license number, offer help to the victim, and volunteer your time to help where you can.
The world only gets better when people refuse to tolerate violence and injustice. It starts on the playground, but carries over into our adult lives.
What would you do?