By Emma Reilly
Recent updates regarding a sexual assault that occured on a Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority elevated train in Philadelphia have concerned and confused the local and national public. The case was widely reported on by the press and gained significant traction on social media.
The incident should encourage students to discuss the bystander effect, as well as to inform themselves about the proper ways in which to intervene in instances of assault, especially in the context of college campuses.
Initial accounts of the incident focused on a particularly horrifying element of the case: individuals present on the Market-Frankford line failing to intervene or call 911 while a woman was sexually assaulted. Additionally, it was reported by the Upper Darby Police Department that some bystanders were recording the incident on their cell phones.
These allegations justifiably resulted in widespread outrage, but they have since been proven untrue. According to Philadelphia Inquirer’s Chris Palmer, the fact that the initial allegations were untrue was confirmed by Delaware County District Attorney Jack Stollsteimer in a press conference on Oct. 21.
As a result, public outrage shifted away from the other train riders and toward the police. Officers failed to correctly assess the situation, which led to an incomplete characterization of those present being perpetuated. Initial reports lacked nuance, causing misinformation to spread.
“There weren’t a lot of people in the SEPTA car where the assault took place. Others who saw it were in and out of the train and might not have understood what was going on,” Philadelphia Magazine’s Ernest Owens said. “In other words, it was more complicated than the…picture the cops tried to feed the public.”
Both initial responses to the case, and considerations of misinformation after the fact, have significant implications for students.
Though the extent to which individuals on the train were or were not complicit bystanders to the assault was called into question, their presence raised important points regarding the bystander effect.
“There are some common reasons why people don’t act…and the first being, they just don’t know what to do, and they’re maybe afraid that they’ll make things worse by intervening,” Bystander Educator Kelly Erikson said in an interview with NPR’s Emily Rizzo.
While we now know that the intentions of those on the train were not malevolent, their actions reflect a lack of education regarding assault intervention.
College campuses are a place where vigilance on this issue is necessary. Students and other members of Washington College’s campus community need to be aware of how to intervene in situations where students may be at risk so they can better protect themselves and their peers.
WC and other colleges and universities should take note of this case and the considerations it inspired. Despite larger discussions now taking place surrounding police authority, initial report accuracy, and more, discourse surrounding the assault can still be relevant and productive.
College students, professors, and administration should be comprehensively educated about how and when to intervene when situations like assault occur. Students should know what resources are available to them and should be aware of how to assist peers during a crisis.
“Once other bystanders notice action, it starts to build a support system, it might encourage someone else to have the back of the person who is trying to intervene…often intervention does not look like direct confrontation,” Rizzo said.
Intervention is a collective endeavor that anyone can be a part of. The bystander effect is something that can and should be understood by all college students.
The incident that occurred in Philadelphia should encourage the College to continue to build up its Gender-Based Violence and Prevention Education program and to make resources like its Sexual Assault Response Advocates well-known to students. By continuing to learn and grow as a campus and community, WC can strive for strong bystander education and violence prevention on campus.