Training program aims to create active bystanders

Recorder Staff
Published: 2/13/2017 11:37:02 PM

When the going gets tough, what can you do?

Quabbin Mediation in Orange has been running its Training Active Bystanders program for 10 years, offering students in the area a chance to learn how to deal with the kind of intimidation and bullying some say they’re seeing increase in the wake of a harsh election campaign and tough-talking presidency.

Now, with an increased call for training around the region and around the state, the mediation service is offering a scaled-down version of its six-hour training to make it more accessible, said Executive Director Sharon Tracy.

“It’s a response to a situation in which so many people from so many backgrounds are really concerned about situations they perceive as very bad behavior being modeled and accepted and acted on around the country,” Tracy said. She has co-authored a curriculum with Training Director Susan Wallace that’s been taught at Greenfield, Amherst, Pioneer Valley, Mahar and Athol-Royalston high schools, as well as Orange Elementary School, Mount Holyoke College and the Franklin County Jail. ”

There’s been an up-swelling of people saying, ‘We don’t like this kind of behavior, and we don’t know what to do,’” Tracy said.

Using its copyrighted curriculum, Quabbin Mediation has trained high school students to teach the program to middle school students and has worked with community groups around Massachusetts and the country and in settings from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to Los Angeles Public Schools.

Of course, not all of the need reflects what some people say is the insulting or crass behavior of Donald Trump, but Tracy says, “If you have somebody in power who is a harm-doer — it could be in the workplace, it could be in the community, somebody who’s just a selectboard member who’s unkind and cruel, it has influence on the kinds of behaviors that are considered acceptable. If they get away with it, if it’s not interrupted, or if somebody tries interrupting it and they get slapped down and have retaliation against them, that progression of harm-doing absolutely has an effect.

“That’s why there’s this incredible up-swelling of folks who have never been active in their lives who are saying, ‘This isn’t OK, but what can we do?”

There are plans in the weeks ahead to offer training in different parts of the county.

The state Attorney General’s hotline to report “hate crimes,” set up in mid-November, has received hundreds of calls from people who have experienced or witnessed bias-motivated threats, harassment or violence — from bullying threats and vandalism to harassment based on religion, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation.

“We felt it was needed in the community,” said Dan Ottenheimer.

Ottenheimer, with others from his Winchester synagogue and members of the Islamic Center of Boston, is planning to do a training as well as a train-the-trainers session to help people learn to confront the “bias-related harassment” that he says has become more common across the country over the past six months or so.

“I’m not sure I’d know how to react if I were in the subway and I saw someone getting picked on,” he said. “If you start to let people get away with harassing people in public, it can easily spread to 75 percent of the country.”

After hearing from Ottenheimer’s group and others that six sessions are too much, Tracy said, Quabbin Mediation decided to offer a two-hour seminar to give people “a good grasp of the concept and the skills,” with a daylong “train the trainers” offering, along with two-day training sessions for instructors of the complete six-part course.

Rather than instructing how to deal with “bullies” taunting “victims,” the sessions teach bystanders to analyze situations where they can become active, preventing “harm-doers” from inflicting harmful behavior on “targets.”

“We stress that language because these goals are mutable, they change,” Tracy said. “We’ve all been bystanders, we all have been targets, we all have done harm, even if inadvertently. By using that language, we give room for bystanders to become active. It injects compassion … How would you want someone to be dealing with you?”

The sessions train people how to analyze the potentially harmful situation they’re witnessing and consider why they may be shying away from taking action — maybe it’s that no one else is having any reaction, or that no one seems to know how to react. People may also not want to get involved, or fear “looking foolish” or doing the wrong thing, or retribution.

“If there’s a harmful situation and nobody takes action,” Tracy said, “then the target learns the world is a cruel, dangerous place that’s unsafe ... and the bystanders learn the same, while the harm-doers learn they can get away with it, and it can escalate.”

Going further, she warns, “Over time, in a community, harmful actions become more and more the norm. That’s a progression that can lead toward genocide.”

The opposite’s also true, she said, with possible benefits for the target, the harm-doer and other bystanders “who are far more likely to take action in other situations.”

An analysis of the training in the schools shows a 20 percent reduction of harmful behaviors, Tracy said.

But even beyond that, she said, “It gets people to understand they have the power to take action at a very local level — on the street, in a coffee shop, if someone makes a really offhand racist remark.”

Learning to play an active role can have even more profound effects on society, said Franklin County Sheriff Christopher Donelan.

“We’re finding that a lot of these guys (in the House of Correction) have had serious trauma events and mental health issues linked to trauma ... that goes back to … when they were little,” Donelan said. “What experiences did they have in school, or if in kindergarten or first grade, if they had either a learning disability or a traumatic issue that wasn’t addressed, how does that continue to pile onto them as they get older?”

It might not be outright bullying, said Donelan, but maybe the trauma is about “coming home every day to a mom and dad who were drunk and beating the hell out of each other, so he had to hide in the closet, or it could be on the playground and you’re overweight and the kids on the playground are verbally vicious to you. That’s trauma. These kinds of things actually do lead kids to start going into some kind of depression, and we’re seeing 12- and 13-year-olds now who are actively engaged in drug and alcohol use. An active bystander program can be very instrumental in helping steer kids away from those experiences.”

“It’s not that badmouthing or hurtful talk doesn’t ever take place,” said Erica Masson, a guidance counselor who for five years has coordinated Pioneer Valley Regional School’s participation in the bystander training with high-schoolers teaching middle school students.

She added, “Those are the sort of things that go on in schools unnoticed, for kids to deal with independently. The trainers are on the lookout for that stuff, and if they hear it, they say, ‘We don’t act like that here.’ That creates a school climate that’s unbelievable.”

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