BY RACHEL CHEESEMAN, FOUNDER OF STREET SMART SELF DEFENSE
It was my senior year in high school, and I decided “enough was enough”. My sister, who was in her junior year, had endured a grueling couple of years of verbal abuse and physical threats from a small group of young women who obviously had nothing else better to do with their time. I grew impatient with a “system” that was much too lax. I always tried my best to follow the rules and allow the older, wiser adults to manage the circumstances. Problem being…it wasn’t working. I was somewhat of an introvert with a small number of friends. Although I wasn’t popular, I was reasonably happy with my life. I was never in trouble or picked any fights. I guess you could say I got tired of being a bystander; today was different. Today was the day I was going to let the leader-of-the-pack know that from this point forward the shift in power was about to change! I calmly approached her and proceeded to tell her, in a firm tone of voice, “if you lay one hand on my sister…you will have to deal with me”. When I look back at this statement, it’s rather comical because of the type of person I was at that time. I didn’t “challenge” anyone. Heck, I didn’t know what “dealing with me” even meant. I was just tired of watching the abuse go on, despite my parents’ best efforts to make it stop. As a side note, none of those girls ever did touch my sister. WINNING!!
My purpose for sharing this story is NOT to advise anyone to handle a bully in this manner. This happened 30 years ago in a culture where kids used their fists to resolve conflict rather than bringing guns to school. My primary focus is to explore the “Bystander Effect”. By definition, the bystander effect relates to a social climate where the presence of others discourages an individual from intervening. We as individuals tend to monitor the surrounding behavior of others to determine how and when to act. In this way, no single person has to take responsibility. Bullying is a poison to the social well-being within schools. Bystanders who observe bullying on a daily basis are impacted emotionally too. In one way it desensitizes them. Our present culture is self-absorbed in social media. Nowadays, rather than getting help as quickly as possible, kids’ first instincts are to whip out their smartphones and begin capturing “the footage”. In another way it can cause others, who are able to act, to become withdrawn or have fears that they might be next. Either way, none of these strategies helps anyone because it involves two extreme ends of the spectrum. I remember watching my sister endure horrible abuse for several months that caused a lot of distress in my own family and daily school life. I hated feeling powerless.
According to the National Bullying Prevention Center, 1 out of 5 students report being bullied. Of the mean prevalence age between 12-18 yrs., 35% reported traditional school-grounds bullying and 15% reported cyber bullying. Most of the traditional incidents occurred in public places such as a hallway, stairwell or classroom. As reported by bullied students, strategies such as walking away or pretending it doesn’t bother them had the most negative impacts. Students who experience supportive actions from their peers such as talking, reassurance or other help were most successful. Current statistics indicate that 57% of all bullying can lessen or stop when a peer intervenes.
Obviously, I’m not advocating for anyone to insert themselves into a situation of imminent bodily harm and/or directly confront the aggressor (as I did). Young people need to spend more time supporting the person being singled out. Unlike the school systems of 30 years ago, the rise of anti-bully programs and public awareness campaigns within schools have helped make a positive impact. These outreach programs both educate and can inspire bystanders to make a difference and take positive action against it. Kids being victimized in today’s world don’t need 10 people standing around recording footage of the abuse. What they want and need are those same 10 people to become their friend.
Rachel Cheeseman is a 2nd degree black belt and has studied the martial arts for the past 28 years. She founded Street Smart Self Defense Academy in Erie, PA 17 years ago to empower women, due to the rape of her sister in her off-campus college apartment. She is a certified instructor for the national full-contact self-defense program called “Model Mugging” and a certified instructor for the MUNIO Self Defense Workshops. Rachel is also a member of and former seminar instructor for the American Women’s Self Defense Association, and she has been inducted into the USA Martial Arts Hall of Fame, Action Martial Arts Magazine Hall of Honors and the World Karate Union Hall of Fame.