Innocent Bystander?

Posted by on Nov 9, 2011 in Dirt, Leadership and Management | 11 Comments


Unless you’ve been under a rock, you’ve most likely heard that Penn State football coach Joe Paterno is having a bad week. Only a few days removed from winning his record setting 409th game, his seemingly spotless 46 year reign as Penn State’s football coach, is tarnished by what should be considered the most dreadful, terrifying, and disgusting sports scandal in the history of…sports: his former defensive coordinator, and close personal friend, Jerry Sanduski, has been charged with nine separate incidents of sexual assault against young boys: a number of which occurred after he retired, but many in Penn State locker room showers.

Upon reading the report (which you should do at your own risk), it’s pretty clear that things don’t look good for Jerry. By all accounts, he is a typical child predator: he developed one of the most terrifying ways to capture, manipulate, and assault young at risk boys through the development of a youth charity called The Second Mile. He had a separate room in his basement where boys would stay the night. He took them to Penn State, played football with them on the field, and then raped them in the showers. Assuming he is guilty, he is one of the sickest individuals on the planet.

The most disturbing element of this story, however, is the fact that multiple assaults that occurred on the campus were witnessed by other people: in one case, a janitor, in another, a graduate student. Equally disturbing are the second and third degree witnesses to these crimes: namely, the people who the crimes were reported to at Penn State. In this case, it was Joe Paterno, then his superiors, former Penn State Athletic Director Tim Curley and Vice President Gary Shultz. The latter two are now under investigation for perjury, and Paterno has said he would retire after this season, since he is under intense pressure by the public.

I’m not here to talk about who’s guilty or who’s to blame. I’m not going to talk about whether or not Paterno should be fired or should be allowed to retire after the season. I’m also not going to talk about the clear issues that exist within college athletics in regards to power structures, accountability, and all of that. Those are for other people to discuss. Do I have opinions? Sure. But I don’t want to talk about them, because truthfully, I don’t think that the big lesson in this case is its impact on college athletics or how people should be punished, or the effect on a man’s legacy this may have. I’d rather figure out how we can use this situation to prevent others from happening. That’s the most important thing that can come of any high profile case involving sexual violence: how do we avoid it next time? In this case, I think the answer involves the concept of innocent bystanders, and bystander intervention.

In the reports, there are a number of moments when Sandusky’s actions are witnessed by other individuals. A janitor and a graduate student stand out in particular. In the business of Sexual Assault Prevention, of which I have existed, we call these folks “Innocent Bystanders”. When talking with college kids (particular men), we use the concept of bystander intervention to empower students to recognize scenarios that may lead to gender violence, and how to effectively intervene. Such intervention can range from calling out one of your friends for hateful speech, to not leaving a drunk woman alone at a party, to figuring out creative ways to diffuse a potentially violent scenario. We’ve all been in these scenarios, whether they are a sexual one or not: it’s when you know something wrong is happening, but you aren’t sure what to do. You may even ask yourself, “why isn’t anyone doing anything about this?” (the answer, by the way, is “because you haven’t done it yet”). The process of taking action is called Bystander Intervention.

For the individuals in this report, the janitor and graduate assistant in particular, we have an example of two innocent bystanders: one is just waiting to clean the showers. The other was returning his sneakers to his locker room. In both cases, the sexual assault of a young boy was witnessed. Neither one acted. Neither one intervened. Of course, this is a complicated scenario: it is difficult to pass judgement on someone when you’re not “in their shoes”. We all want to think that we would have done something different. The testimony from a colleague of the janitor states that he was worried about losing his job if he said anything: powerlessness is a big deterrent to intervening. The graduate student may have felt similarly: he knew who the man was, knew his connections, and knew the power he held on campus (and if he ‘s like a lot grad students, he was probably terrified about, well, everything). Of course, they may have very well been exercising the first rule of bystander intervention: don’t intervene if you feel unsafe. Although I’d modify this a bit: don’t intervene in a way that makes you feel unsafe, but do your best to intervene somehow.

If I was using this as teaching scenario with a group of students (which people should probably do), I’d ask this question: If you were in this scenario, what would you do? We’d talk about it. We’d come up with options. Some might be, walk into the shower, and say, “oh, I didn’t know people were in here…I thought someone left the shower on”. Turn the lights on and off. open and close the lockers really loud. Pull the fire alarm. Distraction is usually a safe way to intervene: in the end, you’ve helped keep a kid from being raped. I’m sure the innocent bystanders in these scenarios wish these things had occurred to them. I’d like to think that, if they had read this blog post, or sat in such a workshop, the circuits leading to those solutions may have already formed, and they could react (my argument here is that employers should offer and require bystander intervention training. Think how this scenario may have played out differently for a janitor who was afraid that if he acted, he’d lose his job: if he’d just finished his worker orientation, which included a workshop on bystander intervention, he would have just received permission from his employer to intervene. Just a thought.).

The most important thing we can do regarding this case, however, is to use it as a means of opening a dialogue about sexual assault in our world, and to do so in the context of how do we prevent this from happening again? If this is through teaching, wonderful. If it’s over beers, great. There is little we can do about Joe Paterno or Penn State, or college football. But there is a lot we can do to make sure that we act as innocent bystanders every day: to make sure that our actions are ones that ensure that no one will get hurt on our watch. Opening the dialogue is the first way to do that: so talk about it. Talk about gender violence, sexual assault, power, and control. What would you have done? How would you have responded? What if it was your son, little brother, or cousin, and not a stranger? I compiled a list a while back of some things Men Can Do to help prevent sexual assault, and it also has a number of resources available. I’d encourage you to visit them.

Thanks for listening.

Photo: AttributionNo Derivative Works Some rights reserved by rene_schlegel

  • Karin Rebnegger

    great post!

  • Jpbrock

    Thoughtful and powerful. 

  • Well said.  As a PSU Alum, a former employee, a former educator, and a parent, I can’t find words enough to describe the shock and horror and revulsion and absolute terror I’ve felt about these events.  I’m very, very angry, and it’s hard to be objective.  But the one aspect of this that I’m clinging to at this moment is that people ARE talking.  Questions are being asked.  Laws are being examined and will (I hope) be revised.  And many, many people are asking themselves:  what would I have done?  I hope beyond hope that that one moment of self-reflection might make all the difference for future victims and the Innocent Bystanders who, because of this event, choose to take action.

    Thank you for this post.

    • VMJ Hall – thanks for your comments. I think a lot of us are shocked by this…it is a difficult thing, when people you trust let you down. But self-reflection is definitely a good way to deal with it…hopefully, the University will be able to move on as a better, stronger, and safer place for learning. Good luck!

  • chipbrock

    Nice post. But I think that in particular the “graduate student” is not so innocent. First he was not in physical danger – he was a former football player and a big man. 28 years old is not a “student” age. Second, his job was not in jeopardy, Sandusky was not a superior having retired years before. Third he continued to socialize with Sandusky after the event as a grad assistant and then employee, attending functions including those sponsored by the youth organization that Sandusky founded. Hard to imagine. Finally, as your mom pointed out to me, his values were formed at home, not the institution: the advice he received from his father that night was to say nothing. 

    This guy participated in a rare event – he witnessed a rape. And he did nothing and for that, presumably, he should be hiding in the Pennsylvania hills as he’s doing. You become a parent and you come across stories like this and you begin to imagine that there are times when you could contemplate homicide. How Sandusky has made it this far is beyond me.

    • Hmm…I think you missed my point, Which is that there is no such thing as an innocent bystander to a crime like this, and that had he received some education about effectiveand safe ways to intervene, this crime could have been stopped. Bystander intervention is exactly that.

      • Brock

        Maybe. Sorry. I think he gets too much of a pass because he’s a “graduate student.” The guy played golf with Sandusky a couple of months later and said nothing for 9 years – let alone not intervening. I don’t think one needs training to do the right thing under the immediate circumstances and especially the aftermath. The guy’s a wimp and I suspect is going to pay for being such an un-innocent bystander over and over.

        • Brock

          …unless the latest stories about him are accurate. If he stopped it and did go to police as some articles are now saying, then it’s different isn’t it.

          • uh, yeah. that’s very different. If he went to police, paterno, AD, VP, and intervened to make sure the rape stopped….then he’s largely in the clear. Not perfect, but sure as hell better than most would do.