National bystander effect

   Last October the nation heard about a teenage girl who was gang raped in a courtyard during a high school dance. What horrified everyone was to learn that in addition to the alleged seven to ten who participated in the gang rape and beating, another 20-some looked on during the nearly 2-hour attack. Citizens learning of the gang-rape bystanders wondered why, out of a reported group of 20, did no one intervene to help the girl?

   In a recent conversation with Meg Bossong — sexual violence prevention professional with the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center, one of the oldest victim advocacy and service centers in the nation — the idea of the incident as a mirror to the national reaction became shockingly clear.

   Researchers study the social and psychological phenomenon that leads to bystanders not intervening in emergency situations where other people are present, called the bystander effect.

   A young girl was beaten and violently raped for hours in a crowd of people. The national reaction was outrage and blame for both the alleged perpetrators and those who stood idly by, watching. But sexual assault is a greater problem than a single incident in California. Fixation on the incident by citizens and media could make the rape seem unique, undermining what law enforcement sees with upsetting frequency: similar crimes occurring in every state, every day. The most recent statistic reports approximately 23 rapes or sexual assaults took place per hour nationally in 2008, or about one every 2 minutes. While the rape of this girl was criminal and reprehensible, dwelling on it without action is, in a way, standing by.

   It's hard for police professionals, who are innately protective and willing to sacrifice their own well-being for another, to rationalize how one can watch violence against anyone — possibly worst of all, violence against a child — take place without acting to stop it.

   But we can do what the witnesses in the courtyard didn't — we can take steps to educate about rape and other violence. We can provide options for bystanders who see behavior they find unacceptable.

   A nation standing by watching the aftermath unfold is as appalling and futile as those who stand by while another is hurt.