Promoting a sense of community - the active bystanders at UCL

a ring of hands all touching suggestive of a team
a ring of hands all touching suggestive of a team
What motivates workshop leaders Active By-stander Training to upskill students in tackling inappropriate behaviour? UCL student Khartik Vinod investigates.

To stand up for ourselves is a life skill and also a personal responsibility. And to stand up for others, is by extent a responsibility towards the larger society. 

UCL has a zero-tolerance policy towards bullying, harassment, and sexual misconduct. UCL’s Active Bystander Training (ABT) is a mandatory training course for all new UCL students that helps to prevent these behaviours. ABT educates and motivates the UCL community to identify and challenge problematic behaviours both onand off-campus. Assisting on somebody else’s behalf when someone behaves inappropriately can make a big difference. The programme has its roots in the Zero Tolerance Towards Sexual Harassment initiative, which is one of UCL’s largest schemes targeting inappropriate behaviour on campus, and the workshop leaders are vital to its success.  

Being an active bystander is best described by its opposite. "By being a ’passive’ bystander, you’re implicitly endorsing the actions of the perpetrator," said Angel Au, an ABT workshop leader and second-year psychology undergraduate. She identifies two reasons why people do not intervene: 

"Firstly, they may be scared to act, fearing they’re going to be the next victim. And secondly, they may not be aware that there’s something wrong."

ABT identifies personal safety as a priority. Before stepping in they recommend the ABC approach:
  • A ssess for safety and see if you can help safely in any way while ensuring that you never put yourself at risk.
  • B e in a group as it is safer to call out behaviour or intervene. If this is not an option, report it to others who can act.
  • C are for the victim and talk to the person who you think may need help. Ask them if they are alright.

To intervene safely, ABT promotes the 4D approach [direct action, distraction, delegation and delay]. By direct action, you’re making your presence felt and heard in that situation, and help end the intimidation when the perpetrator realizes their actions have consequences. Likewise, distraction works if you can improvise in the moment. However, if it’s not safe it’s wiser to delegate the responsibility to someone who can intervene. If none of that’s possible, delaying response until it’s safe can help the victim to not feel alone. 

"It’s about teaching the fundamentals," said Clive Ching, an ABT workshop leader and second-year psychology undergraduate. "We must not forget that inappropriate behaviour can happen between not just two strangers, or among  fellow students and staff, but also between friends." 

Clive shared an instance where a student approached him to acknowledge the benefits of the 4Ds, helping them lay personal boundaries and assert themselves. "They told me ’I know now that if my friend is being inappropriate and says things like ’you know it was just a joke’, that I can always talk to them and say ’hey, maybe that’s not very nice’ and move on.’" said Clive.

Angel joined the ABT, not just to hone her public speaking skills, but also after experiencing and witnessing some of the issues  discussed in the ABT. She said, "I feel it’s important for us to really know what to do. No matter whether or not we have experienced abuse, witnessed it, or have actually been the perpetrator ourselves. All we need is a little bit of education to change everything." 

Being an active bystander allows others in need to feel a sense of support and empowerment as  "there’s always people around to help whenever we are in need," said Clive. "I wanted to teach people that it’s possible to tackle such behaviour by being assertive, rather than being needlessly aggressive in order to get your point across." 

Students and staff at UCL  come from diverse cultural backgrounds, with their own unique experiences of overcoming odds and displaying resilience to challenges in their lives including childhood trauma. Although it is rare for people to be self-revelatory in ABT workshops, the workshop leaders take care to protect the participant’s privacy in case of such an event.

"Our workshops are ’trauma informed’," said Angel. "We do a group agreement in advance of the activities, to get students and staff to respect each other’s perspectives. People must feel they are in a safe space to contribute their thoughts, or to react to the statistics we produce during the workshop."

From the anonymous feedbacks, Angel said, "Some participants thought it was valuable for UCL and the Students’ Union to offer such a course to increase awareness of a problem, facing inappropriate behaviour, that not everyone is aware about."

The ABT takes their feedback seriously, recognizing the need to address issues to help empower people not just on campus, but across wider society. For example, sexual abuse, unlike sexual misconduct isn’t directly talked about in the ABT. However, Angel said, "Obviously, if anyone discloses something similar to sexual abuse, we will signpost them to UCL counsellors, while we find ways to help them with information they may need." Clive also recommended making the best use of the UCL Report + Support tool, which allows for anonymous reporting as well. 

Aside from Angel’s responsibilities as an ABT workshop leader, coding feedback forms and hosting workshops, she is also the President of the UCL Mental Health Society, and runs UCL Cultured Minds, a student-led project seeking to understand mental health from various cultural perspectives. 

"Obviously, the active bystander program is within the university setting, but, if need be, these programs can be delivered in other contexts as well - such as the family context," said Angel. "I’ve attended a similar training for specifically targeting sexual harassment. It could be really useful to inform people to let them know why some people may not act and to teach them how to act just so we are aware of the types of interventions."

"I think the ABT programme is more like a first step in our journey to making yourself or the surrounding neighbourhoods safe," said Angel. "And after this milestone is achieved, I personally think similar programmes may be able to focus on more complex themes - how exactly should someone act in specific scenarios, and aspects such as childhood abuse and sexual misconduct and how these affect our university life." 
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