The Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) chapter of Stand With Everyone Against Rape (SWEAR) held an assembly on Thursday for freshmen and sophomore students about how to be an active bystander, with guest speaker Ashley Bendiksen.
A more comprehensive assembly for seniors and juniors took place on Wednesday, Dec. 7.
SWEAR is a predominantly male-led program that was started by four Dover-Sherborn High School students when they found out their friend, Jackie, had been sexually assaulted.
The program was brought to MVRHS in 2015, and the mission is stated as educating “MVRHS students on the myths, stereotypes, and repercussions of sexual assault and rape.” This year’s assembly was done in collaboration with Martha’s Vineyard Community Services’ Connect to End Violence, and funded by the Tower Foundation and the Gagnon Foundation. The course itself is facilitated by MVRHS wellness coordinator Amy Lilavois and school adjustment counselor Matt Malowski. A total of 28 students, 21 boys and seven girls, completed the program training, part of which happens during a retreat in New Hampshire, to become MVRHS SWEAR leaders. The program teaches students the tools they need to become active bystanders rather than being paralyzed by the situation before them.
Bendiksen defined a bystander as “someone who witnesses something [typically a harmful act]” and chooses to either do nothing (passive) or something (active).
“I think the course has been great, and it really shifts the culture,” Malowski said.
Bendiksen is a “survivor turned advocate,” public speaker, and the winner of the Miss New Bedford and Miss Rhode Island beauty pageants, among other roles, but she had a tumultuous school life when she was young. She experienced bullying from her classmates, and dated abusive boyfriends who verbally, and later physically, assaulted her. These factors, particularly the boyfriends, affected her academically, both in high school and in college. She developed mental health problems that led her to unhealthy coping methods including heavy alcohol drinking and cutting. She even ended up being kicked out by her parents when she was in college.
“There are little things that we can do. I was a teenager who needed a ‘superhero’ … I needed someone to recognize I was a girl in a building on fire,” Bendiksen said, referencing a video shown to the students urging people to be someone’s “superhero” when needed. Bendiksen said had more people noticed what she was experiencing, at least bothered to ask, like her 10th grade science teacher, or intervened, it could have changed how she experienced her early life, which she said felt confusing and like she could not turn to anyone for help.
“The issues that I thought I was dealing with uniquely all alone were actually issues that impact students in every community and that I know are actually happening all around me,” Bendiksen said. “The thing is, people hide it really well.”
Bendiksen’s college boyfriend, whom she described as a very jealous and possessive man, attacked her a few weeks after she broke up with him. This forced her to get the police and judicial system involved. The difficult yet “transformative” moment came after Bendiksen left the courthouse. Bendiksen said her whole life had been dictated by others, and she felt liberated to “save herself.” The difficult process of working on herself led to opportunities rolling her way, starting by volunteering at a local domestic violence agency. She was later invited to speak about her experiences at a community event.
Bendiksen also shared statistics from various sources, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the grassroots domestic violence and sexual assault awareness group No More, alongside whys and hows about being an active bystander. One in three teens experiences some form of dating violence, the most common being emotional abuse shown through “patterns of coercive and controlling behaviors.” One in five teens know a friend experiencing abuse, and the same amount experience bullying. Bendiksen also showed that the CDC marked 2021 as the “highest level of teenage sadness ever recorded.”
Although there are many forms of harmful acts, including abuse, bullying, and hate speech, many times people don’t act because they don’t know what to do or say, according to Bendiksen. A time she was a passive bystander was when she was in middle school, where a student named Sarah would be bullied, including by Bendiksen’s friends, who greeted her in a mocking manner. Bendiksen said she didn’t know what to do, and she had her own issues, but she started by saying, “Hi, Sarah” in a normal fashion, “in the kindest, most unintimidating way,” for the rest of the school year.
“I don’t know if she recognized it, I don’t know if she looks back and is grateful that I said ‘Hi’ every day. But, the point is, I did something, and I didn’t have to go report the bullying, I didn’t have to go up to someone and say, ‘Don’t do that, that’s mean.’ I didn’t have to put myself in that situation, but I did do something small, and I think that’s the whole point of today. Really small acts are super-heroic,” Bendiksen said, although the “sad reality is most of us do absolutely nothing,” according to research on people’s behaviors on whether they help others in need. These include the bystander effect (an expectation that someone else will handle the situation when there are more people) and other factors, like uncertainty, fear, and a lack of confidence or skills.
An acronym Bendiksen shared with to help students understand different ways to intervene was ACT, which stood for Acting alone to help a person and confront the issue, Convincing others (a friend or trusted resource) to help, and Thinking outside the box. An example Bendiksen gave was when her abusive boyfriend came to her restaurant job, a way her coworker could have stepped in without a direct confrontation or notifying a manager was saying guests at a table were looking for her, which would create a reason to exit the situation.
SWEAR “focuses on gender-based violence, but it does cover, as you saw, everything,” Lilavois said.
Although Bendiksen used the terms like “superhero,” Lilavois thought it could be simpler than that.
“For me, it’s not necessarily being a hero. It’s just stepping in and being human. Have a little compassion,” Lilavois said. “Have some empathy, have some compassion. You just never know what’s going on in other people’s lives.”
During the assembly, some of the men who are a part of SWEAR shared what drew them to the program, starting with Malowski.
“This is not an assembly that we actually have to do. We’re not checking off boxes for a curriculum, or the state or anything. This is something that we do because it means something to us,” Malowski said.
Malowski is part of SWEAR because of all of the women in his life. “Some of the things that you’re going to hear here today makes me think about how their life is very different from the life that I live,” he said. Malowski continued by saying the assembly is not about “male bashing,” but rather “an opportunity for a lot of us, and again this is especially for the boys in the room, to think about the things that we do day-to-day.”
The harm caused to women largely comes from men, according to Malowski. To emphasize how men should be holding each other accountable, Malowski extended his arms and represented the total male population as from fingertip to fingertip and from a fingertip to his wrists as the percentage of men (around 15 percent) “that cause actual harm … based off of gender.”
“What are the rest of all of us men doing?” Malowski asked the students, adding that the assembly was about “activating” men to become active bystanders.
MVRHS building trades teacher Bill Seabourne said he was a “passive bystander” for a lot of his life, and set out to change that in college. “It took one evening to realize I, right here, was the difference,” he said, later underscoring, “Once you know something, you can’t unknow it.”
Toby Roberts, a student who is a part of SWEAR, said he is in the program for his seventh-grade sister. “Based on the stories I heard from my peers and female classmates, I don’t want her high school experience to be the same as some of theirs,” he said.
Several videos were shown to drive home the point to students, exploring topics primarily on how social norms and expectations shape boys’ perceptions and behaviors. These included hypersexualization of girls in entertainment media, and the display of hypermasculinity (e.g. sports, military, movies) as aspirational, affecting how boys and men develop (e.g. locker room talk). A video explaining how to help others was also shown.
A bit of time was also reserved for students and staff to ask Bendiksen questions alongside talking with her one-on-one. She invited students to keep in touch and use her as a resource.
Lilavois said there are also classes and programs related or adjacent to SWEAR, such as Team Mental Health First Aid, and a period to be reserved for a boys’ discussion group about “what it means to be a healthy person,” led by Malowski.