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November 11, 2009

Each week at PQ there are several therapist-run group sessions that touch on a variety of topics.  One of those this week addressed the concepts of peer pressure and “the bystander effect.”  The issue was stirred up by the tragic events of October 24 in Richmond, CA during which a 15-year old girl was raped, robbed and beaten, over the course of two hours, by a number of men of various ages.  Articles note that nearly two dozen people witnessed the event, some texted their friends to “come and see” and only one woman called to alert the authorities.  I shared articles with the group at PQ and then we transitioned into an open forum where students could share thoughts, feelings, reactions and bring up topics of concern.

The shock on each of the students’ faces was evident and boys and girls alike addressed their initial reactions, feeling that it was absurd that there were so many “spectators” and so few people who intervened.  Following the initial shock, the conversation veered into the question of “what would you do if you were walking past?”  Students addressed the reality of peer pressure and the fear of “being called a wuss” if they were the one to call the authorities.  Some of the boys who had in the past been in fights, addressed how tough it could be even for a close friend to shake them out of their angry state and how someone who intervened could put themselves in harms way.  One of the male students asked if the girls had ever put themselves in an unsafe position in which they could have been accosted in such a way and asked that they share their thoughts and feelings.

It was evident that, while they each was appalled from far away, they would have a difficult time making a clear decision if faced with walking past such an incident and they even addressed more “mild” examples of a simple school fight.  One student noted that there is a real lapse of clarity and decision-making ability when emotions and chaos ensue, leading to more of a “deer in headlights” look in-the-moment.  All of this lead to looking at the principles of individual character and community character development that are constantly focused on in the day-to-day at PQ.  We addressed concepts of personal accountability, increasing confidence to speak up among peers, learning not only to share hard feedback to be a graceful recipient and building on the ego strength to look at areas you could benefit from working on as an individual.  We addressed honesty in the face of possible rejection in addition to broader focuses of peer pressure in general.

What continuously arose was the concept of encouraging and challenging each other to “be the best version of yourself” and how that could lead to the community being the best version of itself.  At times there are questions from the students about the usability of tools derived in “therapy camp.”  Students will say, “it’s not like I’m going to call a group in the middle of english class to identify and express my emotions.”  And that’s true.  What is also true is that, if you never have the experience, and repetitively have the experience, of doing just that, then you are not developing the tools to even identify those emotions and their triggers in the first place.  This is the first step that is then followed by figuring out how and when and with who to express those things in your community outside of PQ.  Developing the tool is primary and the foundation of moving forward with it into other settings.

Character development and moral development are major underlying factors leading to actions and behaviors.  And, so, as we focus on accountability, honesty, acceptance, right and wrong etc. rather than just on “how to be happy,” we augment the teenage ability to manage life’s disappointments and challenges, thus leading to affect a larger community.

This is a heavy topic and a tough real world example to bring to these students who get the privilege of pushing the pause button on having to face the tough events.  They get to pause from the shock and overwhelm of being in-the-moment to better discern decisions and reactions that allow them to walk away feeling proud of themselves.  They get to take a break from the masks they have built up until this point in their lives that have helped them to “survive” to figure out for themselves and their communities what “me” really looks like when you are not in chaos and survival mode.  They get to decide not only what they can benefit from this work but also what that contributes to future 15-year-old girls in similar tragic situations.

I read a quote once during my obsession with Jackie Robinson, the man responsible for breaking the color barrier in baseball.  The writer stated that if there was anyone who would pick to walk down a dark alley with, it would be Robinson for his sheer courage.  I can say the same about the students I have worked with at PQ.  Regardless of the story of their lives prior to arriving at PQ, I would pick one of them to be a passerby if I was in the shoes of that poor girl, for their character and for their ability and courage to create a new story for their future.

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