Consider the following scenario:
You are in a school corridor with your friends. You notice another friend of yours with his girlfriend. What grabs your attention is the way that he is talking to her. You can’t make out what he is saying but it is clear he is angry. Also, he is holding her tightly by the arm.
What’s now going through your mind when you see this? Something like this perhaps?
Wow this has really grabbed my attention. What do I do? If I do say something right now, could I make it worse? Might my friend turn on me, might the girl turn on me as well? Ok this is none of my business, but I feel really uncomfortable walking past this. If he does this in public what does he do when in private? If I do nothing I’m saying this is ok, but I know it’s not.
The above scenario forms part of the curriculum within the Mentors In Violence Prevention (MVP) Programme. It is also true that situations like these are common amongst young people in their early intimate relationships.
Developed in the United States by educator Dr Jackson Katz, MVP is a leadership programme that utilises a creative bystander approach to preventing violence. In the programme, young people come together as friends and classmates to discuss ways to support, even challenge others, when they witness problematic behaviour.
When it comes to addressing violence, society tends to focus on the end result of violence, the physical stuff. To really prevent violence, we need to start to challenge the bullying, the name calling, the sexist jokes and importantly the silence from the many people who witness the end result or who remain silent in the face of negative behaviours.
We often suggest that bystanders should not get involved. There are risks in intervening, that is clear. Within MVP, a bystander is defined, as a friend, a classmate, a team mate, a relative or a colleague. It is someone who you know that is either being victimised or who is the perpetrator. Why wouldn’t you help a friend?
Let’s go back to the scenario at the start. What could you do? You could do nothing, and we have to accept that to some, this is their only choice. When discussing silence within MVP we talk about what messages silence is sending out. It says to victims they are on their own and just have to accept the abuse. It tells others that their abusive behaviour is accepted, either within the circle of friends, within the organisation or worryingly in society. So, silence doesn’t help, and I would go further and suggest silence is the infection that allows the abuse to continue.
You could directly get involved and put yourself in between the two. That will have consequences some of which I have described. Remember this is happening to a friend. You have a responsibility to do something surely? What could you do to make this intervention safer? Could you engage others, your friends? Could you speak with a teacher or a parent?
You could shout out from a distance. This is safer, it lets the perpetrator know they are being watched. You could further distract the perpetrator by referring to something else. This could stop the abuse and provide an opportunity later to speak directly to either the victim or the perpetrator. This simple support for a victim could make a huge difference. It may also let the perpetrator see what they are doing is socially unacceptable and even unlawful.
The range of interventions available to a bystander are made clear during all MVP scenarios. Another major plus for using a bystander model is that boys, girls, men and women are not targeted as victims or perpetrators. By suggesting that these issues are happening to people they care about you can engage them on prevention rather than simply ‘indicting’ them. In simple language you are ‘switching on’ the bystander to see a reason for getting involved. You are ‘ringing the bell’ in their head and giving them options to intervene.
Most think that a bystander model seeks to give people a list of ‘what to do options’. Whilst this is a part of it, a lot of the MVP model attempts to address the dynamics of the issue. So, in this case, questions like why do some boys assault their girlfriends? Or why do girls who are being abused stay with their boyfriends? We also ask such questions like: what is domestic abuse or dating violence, what is sexting? MVP aims to get young people to identify a behaviour as wrong or unhealthy.
MVP provides a platform for friends to see that the majority of their peers hold similar healthy views. Behaviours such as bullying and sexual harassment (all discussed in MVP) are the pillars which, if not tackled support the use of physical violence. They often say that violence starts with words. Empowering the healthy majority is key.
The real magic of the MVP model is found in the peer to peer approach taken to deliver these sessions. The model recruits and trains older secondary school pupils with the aim that they, after training, deliver sessions to younger peers. These young leaders provide a positive role model influence and as we all know, young pupils look up to older pupils in any school. Seeding schools with pro-social role models will have a positive and lasting impact.
The evidence around MVP has been positive with attitudes to violence changing. Young people communicate that they have options to help others. Schools are seeing less violence, less expulsions and a general feeling of safety is becoming a regular part of feedback. Furthermore, the skills that mentors are developing are supporting them out-with the school setting. These skills are supporting mentors in their university application forms as well in job interviews in their post school lives.
Schools are places of learning, that is clear. It is also clear that unhealthy relationships are a barrier to successful learning. No significant learning will take place without a significant relationship. MVP, as a tool, helps support the building of healthy relationships. MVP is a programme supporting schools achieve more than just reducing violence. It helps young people be the success they want and deserve to be.
The MVP Programme is currently being developed in South Yorkshire, funded by the South Yorkshire Violence Reduction Unit. It is the intention to engage a number of schools in the first phase with the intention of developing a team of MVP trainers to support a wider implementation in the years ahead.
I look forward to supporting the South Yorkshire Violence Reduction Unit on their MVP journey.
Graham Goulden is a former police officer who spent the last 8 years of his policing career working with the Scottish violence reduction unit. During this time, he implemented the MVP Programme within the Scottish education system. Graham is an international MVP trainer having supported development of MVP in the US. Graham runs his own leadership and violence prevention business, Cultivating Minds UK working in Schools, Universities, workplaces, in sports, in prison and in communities.