Skip to main content

In teen beating, don't blame bus driver

By Elizabeth Englander, Special to CNN
updated 6:18 PM EDT, Tue August 6, 2013
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Florida school bus driver did not help when teen was beaten on bus
  • Elizabeth Englander says before criticizing, place blame on assailants; driver in terrible spot
  • Studies show intervening can backfire; people need alternative to assuming risk, she says
  • Englander: Bus companies should have tools, techniques to disable assailants till help arrives

Editor's note: Elizabeth Englander is a professor of psychology and the director of the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University. Her new book "Bullying and Cyberbullying" will be released in October.

(CNN) -- What would you have done?

Last month in Florida, a school bus driver witnessed a vicious assault on a 13-year-old boy. He radioed the bus dispatcher and frantically begged for assistance, as he feared the victim was being seriously injured. But he did not intervene.

While the victim's physical injuries may heal, his psychological trauma will undoubtedly linger, including the harrowing knowledge that no one would help him.

Teens trained to spot drama before it turns dangerous

Elizabeth Englander
Elizabeth Englander

But before we pile on the driver, let's be clear: The most egregious wrongdoers here are the violent teens. They victimized a boy horribly and wronged the agonized bystanders.

The driver's anguish over his own inaction may be real and palpable, but should he still have done more? Obviously, he wasn't confident enough of his own physical ability to handle several violent teenagers, although he had a special responsibility to protect the children on that bus.

We all want to think that we would disregard our own personal safety to help children, but in a highly charged moment, a bystander is forced to make an instant, possibly haunting judgment about risk and danger.

Violence works both by crushing a victim and by intimidating others. When you're not there, it's easy to dismiss the terror, but for the bystander, it's often a lose-lose proposition. Fail to intervene, and it haunts you; intervene, and you may become the victim. Intervention requires bystanders to overcome the basic self-protective instinct that ensures their own survival, and that's probably why there's no one we admire more than those who disregard their own personal safety to help others.

Teachers' lesson in heroism and healing

Bus beating: 'Where are the parents?'
Could driver have stopped bus beating?
Should school bus drivers stop fights?

Despite that admiration, and despite our sense as adults that we need to protect children, many of us find that we do not, and cannot, intervene as bystanders.

To complicate matters, some violent situations can actually be worsened when a bystander intervenes. My own research (PDF) at the Massachusetts Aggression Reduction Center at Bridgewater State University, and similar studies (PDF) at the Youth Voice Project at Penn State, have found that bystander interventions in bullying episodes frequently backfire. The bully, feeling publicly humiliated, takes revenge against the original victim. Knowing that you might worsen the victim's situation only makes these incidents more frustrating. If an adult shouldn't throw himself in the middle of a physical altercation, what else can he do?

In the Florida situation, there was an immediate danger that required a response but not necessarily significant physical risk. A recent study in the journal Aggressive Behavior found that interveners typically used nonviolent methods. If the school bus company had developed a set of emergency procedures that didn't require high personal jeopardy, perhaps the entire crisis could have been avoided.

Bus drivers can be trained in the use of tools and techniques that can help disable violent teens (e.g., use of pepper spray). Calls to dispatch can be augmented with 911 calls and emergency "panic" buttons. No one likes to consider that such preparations are necessary, and they will cost money, but by thinking ahead and preparing for such scenarios, we might be able to avoid a situation where the choice is simply who will end up with the broken bones.

Interrupting the cycle of teen violence

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Elizabeth Englander.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 11:17 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Today's politicians should follow Ronald Reagan's advice and invest in science, research and development, Fareed Zakaria says.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Artificial intelligence does not need to be malevolent to be catastrophically dangerous to humanity, writes Greg Scoblete.
updated 10:05 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Historian Douglas Brinkley says a showing of Sony's film in Austin helped keep the city weird -- and spotlighted the heroes who stood up for free expression
updated 8:03 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
Tanya Odom that by calling only on women at his press conference, the President made clear why women and people of color should be more visible in boardrooms and conferences
updated 8:12 AM EST, Fri December 26, 2014
When oil spills happen, researchers are faced with the difficult choice of whether to use chemical dispersants, authors say
updated 1:33 AM EST, Thu December 25, 2014
Danny Cevallos says the legislature didn't have to get involved in regulating how people greet each other
updated 6:12 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Marc Harrold suggests a way to move forward after the deaths of NYPD officers Wenjian Liu and Rafael Ramos.
updated 8:36 AM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Simon Moya-Smith says Mah-hi-vist Goodblanket, who was killed by law enforcement officers, deserves justice.
updated 2:14 PM EST, Wed December 24, 2014
Val Lauder says that for 1,700 years, people have been debating when, and how, to celebrate Christmas
updated 3:27 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Raphael Sperry says architects should change their ethics code to ban involvement in designing torture chambers
updated 10:35 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Paul Callan says Sony is right to call for blocking the tweeting of private emails stolen by hackers
updated 7:57 AM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
As Christmas arrives, eyes turn naturally toward Bethlehem. But have we got our history of Christmas right? Jay Parini explores.
updated 11:29 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
The late Joe Cocker somehow found himself among the rock 'n' roll aristocracy who showed up in Woodstock to help administer a collective blessing upon a generation.
updated 4:15 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
History may not judge Obama kindly on Syria or even Iraq. But for a lame duck president, he seems to have quacking left to do, says Aaron Miller.
updated 1:11 PM EST, Tue December 23, 2014
Terrorism and WMD -- it's easy to understand why these consistently make the headlines. But small arms can be devastating too, says Rachel Stohl.
updated 1:08 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Ever since "Bridge-gate" threatened to derail Chris Christie's chances for 2016, Jeb Bush has been hinting he might run. Julian Zelizer looks at why he could win.
updated 1:53 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
New York's decision to ban hydraulic fracturing was more about politics than good environmental policy, argues Jeremy Carl.
updated 3:19 PM EST, Sat December 20, 2014
On perhaps this year's most compelling drama, the credits have yet to roll. But we still need to learn some cyber lessons to protect America, suggest John McCain.
updated 5:39 PM EST, Mon December 22, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT