Bystanders

2 min

When her son was roughed up, Hanna Clements-Hart was in the worst place a parent could be – far away. She desperately hoped someone, anyone would come to his aid.

The text from my 13-year old son comes in as I commute home on BART: “Some kids stole my snacks and hit me.”

Over the next few tense minutes I text him frantically: “Are you OK? Where are you? Yell for help! Go into a store.” Responses come back out of sync: “Ya, no, I don’t know. They took my tennis racket. They’re threatening to beat me up.” I am powerless to help as I witness my son’s mugging from a distance.

Twenty minutes later I pick him up, shaken but OK. The story emerges in a jumble. Waiting for the bus home, he was approached by three middle school aged kids that he didn’t know, a girl and two boys, who harassed, hit him on the head, slapped his face, and took some of his stuff, gave it back, took it again, taunting him with it.

I was concerned for my son and angry at the kids’ behavior. But what upset me more was that there were people—kids and adults—at the bus stop who stood by. No one told the assailants to stop hitting him or to leave him alone. No one asked my son if he was OK or if he needed help. The only person who did anything was a man who told the kids, “You better give him back his tennis racket” and then joked around with them as if they were cool.

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Anti-bullying programs at school teach kids be an upstander, not a bystander. They teach that you don’t have to directly confront the bully, but you can be an ally by befriending the target. If just one adult had been an ally to my boy, asked if he was ok, or offered him a safe place to stand, the kids might have backed off, or at least he would have felt less alone.

Since then, our school has taken action. Parents offer rides home and there’s a group of kids who can walk to the bus together. Meanwhile, my son is back riding Muni and navigating the city on his own. He’s pretty savvy and mature, but he’s still a kid. Adults out there, please look out for him and for all kids and vulnerable folks. And if you see someone being targeted, please be an upstander, not a bystander.

With a Perspective, I’m Hanna Clements-Hart

Hanna Clements-Hart is an executive coach and lives in San Francisco.

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