'Grass roots' bystander intervention

By C. Todd LopezApril 5, 2016

Master Sgt. Jeff Fenlason discusses bystander intervention
(Photo Credit: U.S. Army) VIEW ORIGINAL

WASHINGTON (Army News Service, April 4, 2016) -- Master Sgt. Jeff Fenlason asked about 25 people to close their eyes and imagine a fictional scenario involving somebody they care about.

"Imagine a party. You're not at the party. But you can see it. Like they removed the roof of the house and you are looking down at it. And you think about the person you love most in the world. The party is getting late and they are getting ready to leave. And they go to the back room to get their coat and they are followed there by a person who begins to assault them. And as the assault goes on, a third party opens the door, looks in, then closes the door and walks away."

Fenlason is with Division Headquarters and Headquarters Battalion, 3rd Infantry Division, Fort Stewart, Georgia, and serves as the noncommissioned officer in charge of their "bystander intervention program" -- a program he helped create and which might right now be the only one of its kind in the Army.

Two questions followed the scenario Fenlason posed during his April 4 presentation at the Pentagon, a shortened version of the one he offers to Soldiers around the Army.

The first of those questions: "How do you feel about the person assaulting your loved one?"

"I want to stop them," was one answer. "I want to hurt them," was another answer. "I want to kill them," was the most extreme.

And a second question: "How do you feel about the person that did nothing to stop it?"

"Angry" and "they are worthless," were two answers. A more detailed answer: "I was thinking that the person being assaulted was my niece, who is in college now. And I was thinking what if the third party was my daughter. Well maybe my daughter would be at risk if she tried to do something. But there comes a point where you have to be brave and do something."

How bystanders to crimes or other emergencies behave, whether they identify a situation as one that needs to be intervened on, and whether they are themselves willing to intervene or choose instead to do nothing, was the focus of Fenlason's presentation.

What he discussed is the result of nearly three years now of practice and development that was kicked off in the spring of 2013 when he was part of 1st Armored Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Divison, and was asked to look at how things could be done differently in his brigade when it comes to stopping sexual assaults.

"We went looking if we could make a difference and end sexual assault in my brigade," he said. "We started looking at how SHARP training was done, and what their data said. But it was sort of a SHARP light."

Where they were headed, he said, "wasn't really much different than the current SHARP training."

But then he had a chance discussion with a professional at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who he said was dealing with a similar set of young people there, with a similar set of problems as the Army when it comes to sexual assault.

There, he said, he heard this for the first time: "we have to empower the good people in the world to step up," Fenlason said. "And that made all the change in the world. Then we started looking at bystander intervention."

"Bystander intervention is a sociological word, not a brand or a title," Fenlason said. "It speaks to the phenomenon of why people involve themselves, or don't involve themselves in a variety of situations. Once we understood the science behind that, we were able to put it into the Army culture."


The bystander effect, Fenlason said, "refers to the phenomenon in which the greater the numbers of people that are present, the less likely those people are to help a person in distress."

One explanation for that phenomenon, he said, includes the diminished level of personal responsibility that is felt when there are more people around.

Fenlason cited a July 4, 2015, situation on the subway in Washington, D.C., to illustrate the bystander effect. Then, a man was killed after having been stabbed 30 to 40 times, and there were plenty of others on the subway, Fenlason said.

But nobody responded or offered assistance, Fenlason said. Quoting a newspaper story regarding the incident, Fenlason said that one man reported he had felt he could have done something, because he thought he was big enough to, and felt confident that if he had acted others would have assisted too -- but he then opted to do nothing. He didn't take the first step.

"Then you drop down three paraphrases in the story," Fenlason said, "It says law enforcement showed up and told them they'd done the right thing, because the perpetrator had a knife. You let the professionals handle it. We've gotten to a culture where you always let the professionals handle it? So that makes it somebody else's problem."

But he confirmed that no matter how many others are present -- an individual, including a Soldier -- always maintains 100-percent responsibility for their own choice to do the right thing. Increased numbers of bystanders doesn't decrease their personal responsibility, he said.

Fenlason said Soldier intervention to stop a sexual assault, for instance, might be a tough call, especially if by intervening the Soldier feels he might get himself in trouble. Intervention could lead to a fight, he said. And a fight could lead to the police being called. And a Soldier in a fight who has been drinking underage might find himself arrested and in trouble with his command. Fear of that, Fenlason said, might prevent a Soldier from trying to do the right thing.

To get Soldiers to feel confident enough to value stopping a rape or an assault over the repercussions they might face personally for intervening requires that Soldiers have confidence that their leadership has their back.

"If I don't trust that my chain of command will hear me out and will listen and invest in me, then I won't get involved," Fenlason said.

Another explanation for the bystander effect, he said, is that bystanders feel the need to "behave in correct and socially acceptable ways." When other observers fail to react, he said, individuals often take that as a signal that a response is not needed or appropriate.

"Everybody wants to be on a team," he said. "The problem is we have to figure out how to tell them what the team means, at the local level. It has to be about what does it mean to be a member of this squad, this platoon, this company. How do we do business? Who's setting the norms?"

That answer has to come from the team leader or the squad leader, Fenlason said.

"In a safety brief on a Friday, instead of telling Soldiers not to do the things they already know not to do, we can instead lay things out in scenarios," he said, offering up one of the scenarios he uses in training.

"You're at a party and you see a couple go upstairs," he said. "A couple minutes later you see three other dudes going upstairs laughing and giggling. You go up to see what's going on and they have got her across the bed. One dude says 'hey man, you can either stick around or go back downstairs. She's giving up turns for the deployment. ' What are you going to do?"

Discussion of that scenario, he said, happens at the unit. "You do it on Friday afternoon. You do it out loud. You do it at formation."

There are a lot of different "right" answers about how to intervene, he said. Men and women, for instance, will react differently.

"There are four dudes in there already intending on raping a girl," he said. "A female may leave and call somebody for help -- she doesn't want to be victim No. 2. A guy may go in and start a fight. Somebody else may call the cops. Somebody else may pull the plug on the stereo, or do anything to create a distraction. They are all fine answers. They are all okay. They are all doing something.

"I often tell people if I was in charge of a unit today, I wouldn't tell you what to do. I would expect, I would demand intervention. When it's an emergency, you intervene."

That conversation that starts Friday afternoon before the weekend continues the following week, he said, throughout the unit. "In the motor pool, it's 'maintenance Monday,' and somebody says 'hey first sergeant, Johnny's full of crap, that's not what he would have done.'"

And the first sergeant, Fenlason said, takes that as a cue to continue the conversation there on the spot. In that way, he said, the conversation on how to intervene, and the expectation of the unit that Soldiers will intervene, is ongoing.

"It becomes part of the fabric of that unit. It's full-time work. It takes an invested chain of command a lot of time if they want to have that positive effect," Fenlason said. "They have to reclaim defining what it means to be a member of that organization. If you don't do it, the kid in the barracks will do it for you. We need leadership to spend a lot of time talking about what it means to be 'Manchu,' or whatever that unit label is.

"We want to educate at the lower level what it means to be a member of this organization," he said. "This organization treats women how? This organization treats people of color how? Or, this organization treats people with different sexual orientations how?"

Fenlason's presentation was condensed down from about the three hours or more that's presented to Soldiers at units across the Army, and it was put on at the Pentagon as part of Sexual Assault Prevention and Response month here.

Sgt. 1st Class Genita M. Ruffin, with the Army's Inspector General, and Staff Sgt. Kris Campbell, with the Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, both attended the presentation and say they found it to be more engaging and more effective than training they have had in the past.

"This goes completely against the standard 'check-the-block' training," said Campbell, who is an infantryman by his military occupational specialty. "This is the total opposite of that. It's a complete breath of fresh air. It's not cover-your-ass training. It's what needs to be said, no matter how uncomfortable or taboo it is. This right here would completely change everything."

Ruffin, who is a petroleum supply specialist by her MOS, was also on board with what she heard.

"This here was awesome training," she said. "I think this training should go to the units, to be an eye-opener to everybody. I think this right here, with the new generation of Soldiers coming into the Army? They need to hear this. That's how I feel."

Fenlason said that the bystander intervention training he and his team at 3rd Infantry Division have developed is spreading across the Army -- and they are the ones making that happen.

"It's completely grass roots," he said. "We've been very careful to say this is leader development. That's the responsibility of every command. It's developing trust and judgment. We're trying to help units develop the judgment of their Soldiers to intervene, and the trust that their command will at least listen to what happened and take the fullest, broadest look they can at a situation."

Fenlason and his team teach two courses. The first is to actually teach Soldiers at 3rd ID the material they have developed regarding bystander intervention. The other course they teach is to prepare personnel at other commands to teach it to their own Soldiers -- a "train the trainer" thing, he said.

Already, Fenlason said, they have trained 60 facilitators at 82nd Airborne Division; 250 facilitators for Army Recruiting Command; and 60 to 90 facilitators at 1st Armored Division. Throughout the Army, he said, they've trained more than 600 facilitators.

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