Bystander Training

Last year, the University of New Hampshire introduced a new curriculum to Oyster River High School known as Bystander Training. The program offered students a unique opportunity to change the culture of the school by teaching students how to be positive bystanders, although not without experiencing some challenges along the way, including a script that was criticized for sounding artificial.

Bystander Training was first introduced to ORHS in 2018 as a pilot program. Since then, teacher facilitators have made positive changes with the help of this year’s new schedule to make the training a more natural fit in student’s schedules. This year the program began on Monday, March 25th, where ORHS sophomores participated in the first lesson or “module” of the University of New Hampshire’s program, Bringing in the Bystander, also referred to as Bystander Training.

Trevor Garman, an English teacher and Bystander Training facilitator, explains the purpose of the program. “[Bystander Training] is meant to teach sophomores about relationship abuse and dive into the foundations of how language and assumptions in our culture can create a culture where people are not recognizing abuse as abuse,” he says. “We teach [students] how they can step in and diffuse a situation or support those who are victims of abuse.”

Bringing in the Bystander was first introduced to Oyster River High School last year, through a pilot program led by the University of New Hampshire. Until then, the program had only been taught and applied on college campuses across the country, with the mission to spread awareness of relationship violence and to educate the community on how to best help victims.

“Last year, we were a pilot school for the program UNH created and they were doing a research study on it,” stated Bystander Training facilitator and English teacher, Shauna Horsley. “When we were asked to participate, [ORHS principal, Suzanne] Filippone said yes due in part to the answers on the Youth Risk Behavior Survey which indicated that relationship violence was a problem for some students here at Oyster River and so obviously we wanted to respond to that.”

As expected from a pilot program, last year’s introduction of the curriculum went through several difficulties and setbacks including snow days and the delivery of the material which was scrutinized for sounding too scripted.

Student bystander and facilitator Cam Schiavo (‘19) speaks to one of the biggest problems, saying, “because we stayed on script the entire time and couldn’t deviate from it, it sounded too scripted and sort of artificial.” He continues, “we did that because it was a pilot program at the time and [UNH] needed very specific results and they needed to get them as accurately as possible, but now we can actually sound like ourselves.”

Because of several snow days, the bystander program, which was supposed to last a few weeks, lasted a couple of months. With the utilization of Advisory and Flex time, this year, the program hopes to move through the curriculum at a faster pace.

Horsley explains that with the new schedule, bystander facilitators are able to complete two modules a week, which helps the training this year as well. “You start to build a rapport with the group and with the subject matter being as serious and sensitive as it is, I think it’s really important that we try to keep that rapport and try to cover it as quickly as we can.” She continued to say, “We don’t want it to drag on forever because that can be difficult for students too.”

Another scheduling change from last year will be the placement of the training in the day. With the new schedule, advisory has moved to earlier in the day.

Horsley addresses this change, saying, “a big [problem] last year was the placement of Bystander Training at the end of the day because that was when advisory met last year.” She explained, “with the new schedule this year, it provided us with an opportunity to do this at a time when students were likely to be here and more open to participate. The hope was that this would be more of a natural fit in that timeframe and so that was one way we dealt with some of the complications from last year.”

Because of some of the difficulties experienced in the previous year of training, some students were vocal about their issues with the program. With this, Bystander Training suffered from a negative reputation, perpetuated by those who underwent the training in 2018. However, the program has since adjusted, adapted, and changed to avoid having these same troubles again, and hopes recipients of the training this year will keep an open mind.

Schiavo addresses this, saying, “I think the main thing that is impacting us so far is the fact that once the juniors heard that [Bystander Training] was coming back, they started telling the sophomores that it was awful and that we only read the script and it just feels like a bunch of people talking at you, but I don’t think they should listen to them because the program is a lot different from last year’s.” Schiavo continues, “the way we are teaching it is a lot different from last year, and I think people should go into it with an open mind and form their own thoughts.”

The curriculum of Bystander Training focuses on mature content, including relationship abuse. The modules are taught specifically to the sophomore class, and student bystanders urge the recipients of this training to take it seriously.

Student facilitator Sophie Rogers says, “I think it is really easy to take information like this as a joke or something you have to do like, ‘oh I can’t believe I have to spend my advisory doing this,’ but my advice would be to keep an open mind. There are people dealing with things like emotional abuse or sexual assault even at this age, and for those people this program could be immensely helpful.” She continues to advise students to, “keep it in perspective that although you may not want to be there it’s really important information especially as you go on into life and you start to have more serious and intimate relationships.”

Garman adds to this, “I know it’s difficult to enter into a program that seems like an inconvenience with an open mind and with an attitude that is going to embrace what’s being talked about but I think with this program, whatever one puts into the program is what one will get out of the program.” He continues and offers advice, saying, “if one decides to sit back and be snarky and not engage then the program will be terrible, however, if students can put that aside and really engage in the conversation and actually listen to what’s being said then I think they’ll grow quite a bit.”

As Bystander Training continues in the upcoming weeks, all facilitators hope the community will treat this program with respect and hope the program will continue to spread awareness and change the school for the better.

Horsley concludes by adding, “I hope that this will be a part of the conversation we have here at Oyster River and will change the culture of this school in respect to the way that we talk to each other and consider the experiences of others.” She explains, “this program is really to get people to be aware of how what we say and how we respond might make other people feel, and so if we can start being a little more reflective of that, I think overall this will make the culture of our school even more accepting.”