If you witness academic bullying, there are actions you can take to disrupt it.

Not all of the following may be practical in every situation, but being aware of options can help you assess what may be appropriate based on the circumstances.

The video offers an overview of strategies that a bystander can use (start at 2:47) while more detail is available below.

1) Acknowledge that you are witnessing behavior that qualifies as bullying.
For a reminder of what constitutes bullying behavior revisit the front page.

2) Be a bystander who disrupts academic bullying

If you see someone being bullied, there a number of ways you can help change the situation.  The goal of bystander intervention is not necessarily to confront the harasser, but to make the target feel supported.

3) Ask the target if they would like assistance.

One of the main things you can do as a bystander is to identify what it would take for the target to feel secure.  One of the simplest ways to start this is to ask the target if they are ok, if they would like help, and check in with them to make sure that your assumptions about the incident you witnessed align with what the target is feeling.

If the target would like help from you, ask them how you can best support them.  This support may take one or multiple forms. If the target is unsure how you could help, here are some suggestions.

  • Be there to listen to them talk about their situation.  Sometimes being able to express feelings to a friendly ear is a helpful step.  Sometimes just confirming that what they are experiencing is bullying and not a normal part of the academic environment can help give them some perspective that helps them feel less alone and pushes back against the idea that the bullying is somehow their fault.
  • You could potentially identify other people who could have been targeted by the same person, and talk to them about their experiences. If there are more people who are experiencing the same issues, it will make your case stronger.
  • Work together to come up with other people to contact about the issue, people who may have more power to be able to help.  For example you may be able to go with the target to talk to the following people about the bullying (as appropriate).
    • Advisor/Supervisor
    • Graduate Program Director
    • Department Head
    • Dean of the College

Having you there for support and to confirm the incidences that you have witnessed can be comforting to the target and having you confirm the incidences that you have witnessed can give the case more weight.  This is also a situation where if there are multiple targets for the same bully, going as a group to talk to authority figures can make your case harder to ignore.

Other people you can talk to include Bryan Hanson, the Ombudsperson who is fully confidential.  He can listen, help you identify strategies to use to be more effective in making your case, and identify resources that could be helpful in making the target feel more secure.

Dean Aimee Surprenant is another resource. She is not confidential, and although she is bound by many limits, she may have more options for direct action. 

To schedule one-on-one meetings with the Dean Depauw, contact Carrie Mayer (caduke2@vt.edu).

4) Shut down bullying behaviors in group situations.

An example of a direct way to disrupt verbal bullying in group situations is to interject and change the tone of the conversation. For example if the bully is making disparaging or belittling comments about the target either under the guise of humor or directly, you can offer counter balancing positive comments about the target or the target’s work. Another strategy is to try to change the subject, to get the bully talking about something else.

Bystander intervention is complex.  It can be easier to want to do something than to come up with potential actions and implement them.  Bystanders often feel torn by competing factors when considering what to do. These factors include uncertainty of the outcome when intervening, not knowing what to do, not wanting to potentially make things worse, yet also not being comfortable with doing nothing.  There are complex power relationships to consider, and the hierarchy within academia can lead those with perceived power discrepancies to feel relatively powerless. It can help to remember that an intervention doesn’t have to be a grand public gesture, it can be as simple as checking in with the target and asking how they are doing and if you can help.  Starting with simple actions like this can give you as a bystander more confidence to do more the next time. However, it is important to remember that the crucial thing is to support the target, and bystander actions should be driven by how they would like you to help.

5) If appropriate, speak to the aggressor in private about their behavior.

6) Know the resources available for the target and yourself.

7) Submit a report via this referral form.