Bullying — 05 January 2012
Life After Bullying Part 3: Bystanders and Guilt

When those engaged in bullying prevention report statistics, they will always report on those doing the bullying. Sometimes they report statistics pertaining to those being bullied. One set of statistics which is difficult to come by pertains tobystanders. To compile statistics on this particular group would be a daunting task to say the least. While the group of bullies and victims is fairly small in relation to the student  body, the group of bystanders is extremely large in number.

If a child is not the victim, nor the bully, then they are by definition the bystander. The bystander is someone who is there as the bullying is taking place. They may see what is going on, or hear it. Some information comes to them directly while some is through the grape vine. It is very difficult to garner statistics on such a large group. All kids are affected by bullying. Even though they may not be directly involved in the actions, they can and often do, suffer trauma from the events taking place around them.

As I shared in an earlier blog, I was terribly bullied as a child. My life was so painful that I often could not face another day at school (Life After Bullying Part 1: View from a Victim). Flash forward 22 years. I was attending a family picnic as part of a weekend long 20th high school reunion. Seeing as how I attended a Catholic school in grades K-8, most of my classmates attended the same high school as well. High school had been fine, mostly because I went from a small class of about 60 to a high school of 1600 where there were 465 in my class alone. During the picnic, a woman I have known since first grade came up to me. Patricia (not her real name) gave me a big hug and tearfully began apologizing for not having been a stand up friend. I was flabbergasted. Patricia had written in my autograph book during 8th grade that she was “sorry for the treatment of the girls, especially me. I should have done something. I should have said something. I should have          ” and there it ended. She couldn’t go on. She was so distraught at having watched me suffer and done nothing that she was unable even to put down on paper how her lack of action hurt not only me, but her as well.

Now here we were 22 years later and she still had not forgiven herself. She felt awful about leaving me to face the bullies alone. She had three children of her own, one of whom had been the victim of bullying. It opened old wounds which still had not healed. She related how she often thought of me and how much guilt she had been carrying around with her since our grade school days. She told me how frustrated she was by the fact that the teachers stood by and did absolutely nothing.  She was so happy to see that I had grown up and married and had a child. If only she knew how emotionally abusive my then-husband could be and how fearful I was of standing up to him.

I have worked with bystanders in the classroom, the counseling office and the clinical setting. The ones who did not stand up for the victim are full of remorse. They feel that they are awful people who let someone down when they needed them most. They are sad, angry, frightened and cannot forgive themselves for not doing something to help.

Bullying creates an environment of fear. Fear can cause anxiety, anger, depression and guilt in everyone who operates within that environment. Bystanders are no exception. When bystanders do not try to intervene, by either stepping in and stopping the bullying or by going for help from a trusted adult, they are in fact enabling the bully. They allow the bullying to go on by  their lack of action. Living in a cloud of fear day to day is like living in a house where domestic violence predominates. It takes a psychological toll.

In her 2000 book Hate Hurts: How Children Learn and Unlearn Prejudice (Scholastic, 2000), Caryn Stern-LaRosa gives practical activities and suggestions on how to teach children empathy and understanding. One particularly moving essay in the book was written by a bystander. This young lady describes how she stood around while the popular crowd taunted a classmate. She describes herself as “two faced” because she chooses to say nothing even though she was friends with the victim and spent a great deal of time with her when they were not at school. The bullying was so hurtful, that the victim decides to attend a different high school from everyone else. In the end, the victim dies in an unrelated car crash. The bystander will now live with her guilt forever, because instead of apologizing for doing nothing in person, she can only apologize in a prayer.

At the end of a guidance lesson on bullying, I have been know to read this essay to the class and then walk out saying nothing more. Many teachers have come to my office to tell me how powerful it was to end the lesson that way. Many students (and teachers) have been left with tears in their eyes. While I do not enjoy making students and teachers cry, I am glad that these powerful words written by a student can have such an impact. Every time I think of Patricia coming up to me to apologize at our high school reunion, I am reminded of this passage.


Stern-LaRosa, Caryn. Hate Hurts: How Children Learn and Unlearn Prejudice.(Scholastic, 2000)

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About Author


After 16 years in the classroom MaryAnn Byrne became a nationally certified counselor and a licensed professional counselor, specializing in child and adolescent therapy and relational aggression. In 2007, MaryAnn became a certified Olweus Bullying Prevention trainer/consultant. She currently works as a school counselor in both elementary and middle school. Additionally, she supervises Olweus programs at the middle school level. She frequently conducts workshops for private schools, Girl Scouts and professional development for the school system. MaryAnn earned her master’s degree from Virginia Tech in counseling, pupil personnel services as well as a B.S. in special education and early childhood education from Radford University.

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